October is Respect Life month in the United States. It begins a new, year-long cycle of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Respect Life Program. The theme for this year’s Respect Life Program is “Every Life is Worth Living.” What an appropriate theme in light of many current events including the continued release of undercover Planned Parenthood videos, declarations of children as “incompatible with life,” and the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in California. This theme provides us a thought-provoking lens through which to consider the worth of a human life. Indeed, society offers us many other ways to value human life which has manifested itself in current events.
The Value of a Life: A Monetary Value?
In the undercover Center for Medical Progress videos, we see the repulsive way in which aborted fetal body parts are being valued. That one can talk so openly and bluntly about the value of a fetus’ liver and thymus or brain is indicative of a much deeper problem: the value we place on unborn babies.
We see the commodification of the human person: organs and tissues are being bought and sold like cows at a cattle auction. The worth of a human person has been reduced to a dollar amount, subject to mere market forces to define its worth.
Valuation of the human person in monetary terms is not in accord with the inherent dignity of human beings. If, in fact, humans are created by God, imprinted with His image, to be in a unique relationship with Him, then it is God Himself who gives value to human beings. It is that value to which we refer when we speak of the inherent value of a human being. Our bodies, too, bear this image of God for as St. Paul writes “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Bearing the image of God, human beings are priceless; they transcend any ersatz assignation of price.
The Value of a Life: Achievement?
We often hear the argument in opposition to abortion: “What if that baby would have grown up to be the next President or would have cured cancer?” There’s certainly merit to it in that we don’t know the impact that person would have potentially made. Had Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln not be born, most definitely the course of history would be different.
In other ways, however, this argument misses the mark. Ironically, it is the same argument made by those who would recommend parents terminate a pregnancy because their child has a chromosomal abnormality, such as Down syndrome, or would be born with severe physical or mental limitations. These children are often branded as being “incompatible with life” because their life will likely be short or they will never be able to be independent.
The measure of a human life is not based upon one’s achievement. One’s value is inherent, arising because of who we are as human beings. The value of a human who becomes a world-famous scientist is the same as the human who lives only five hours because they each have an immortal soul and breathed into life by God. Ask any family that has lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth: the love and loss is very real – and perhaps, even more so because of the loss of the chance to have a relationship on earth with this person.
Sean Cardinal O’Malley, O.F.M. puts it this way: “Our worth is based not on our skills or levels of productivity. Rather, we discover our worth when we discover our true identity found in the unchangeable, permanent fact that we are created in God’s image and likeness and called to an eternal destiny with him.” There’s nothing that we can “do” to merit our existence. Indeed, the very mystery of God’s love is that there really is nothing we can “do” to merit it. It is a free gift from God.
The Value of a Life: Personal Pleasure?
Another view of the value of a life is based on having what we want, when we want it. Personal pleasure has become our battle cry. Anything that stands in the way must be eliminated. This hedonistic valuation finds no value or purpose to suffering of any sort; rather, pain and suffering is totally negative and a sign of failure.
It is this view which is ultimately driving the assisted suicide movement. Take, for example, Governor Jerry Brown’s message accompanying his signing into law California’s assisted suicide law. Governor Brown writes:
In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death.
I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.
In this view, life itself is valueless if it is perceived to be overcome with pain. There is no worth to living if one is facing death. In other words, it is an appeal to complete autonomy, with one’s decision-making based on physical comforts.
We have totally flipped around the meaning of life and death. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.” Now we have many people willing to speak of a hastened death as being good. A good death is equated with a peaceful passing, free of pain or suffering, surrounded by those we love. Such idealizations may give mental comfort to one dying, but is it truly good? Is there not some value to being forced to trust and hope in something, someone beyond oneself? Is there not some worth to redemptive suffering?
A Change in Perspective
This view is certainly countercultural. The world tells us to value things based upon physical “stuff”: how much money one has in their bank account, what one can create, the influence one has, feeling “good.” While none of these are inherently bad, there is a tendency to become overly attached to this earthly “stuff” instead of seeing it as a means to achieve sanctity.
Every life is worth living because every person is meant for sainthood, to be with God forever in Heaven. Every life can also help lead others to holiness as well. Those relationships, prematurely severed by threats to life such as abortion and assisted suicide, are missed opportunities for leading others to God.
To truly live and proclaim this in our world today requires a transformation of how we understand the events which impact our lives. As St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) It is interesting to note that it is the mind which must lead the heart and the body. So too must we call upon our intellect and right reason to appreciate the root of the threats against the sanctity of human life. Again, in the words of G.K. Chesterton: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”