Fat Middle-Aged Wannabe

This is an occasional blog exploring spiritual matters.

Friday, March 25, 2005

What is "Life"?

This Terri Shiavo thing has affected me pretty deeply. I have lots of questions, like:



  • Which people/creatures is it OK to kill, and which is it not OK to kill?
  • Which people/creatures MUST be killed, and which is it OK to allow to live?
  • Which people/creatures is it OK to keep from dying, and which MUST be allowed to die?
  • Which people/creatures MUST be kept from dying, and which is it OK to allow to die?
  • Is a human life intrinsically more valuable than the life of other animals? If so why, exactly?
  • If human life is intrinsically special, what constitutes "human life" in this sense (i.e., "intrinsically valuable")?

You may ask, "Greg, how in the world did you get so wrapped around the axle?" A fair question. In responding to a post on dry_bones_dance, I made the following comment:

Well, it appears that everyone values the "sanctity of life," or they say they do anyway. But isn't the Shiavo case about the definition of "life"?


"Abortion stops a beating heart!". You've all seen the bumper sticker. But so does slaughtering a cow to turn it into hamburgers. What exactly is the difference between a human fetus and a healthy adult cow, or between Ms. Shiavo in her current state and a healthy adult cow, besides the obvious things like the exact sequence of their DNA and their outward appearance? This is a repugnant example, I'll admit, but think about it. It is equivalent to answering the question "What is it about humans that separates them from other animals in an essential way - that makes their lives intrinsically more valuable than the lives of other animals." My answer to this question is based on the notion that mankind is created in the image of God in some essential way that the rest of creation is not. And based on that answer I would argue that the essentially god-like portion of Terri Shiavo is already dead. So I think that what really bothers some people about the "right to life" movement, in addition to the obvious hypocracy noted above, is the very technical way in which they define "life". Namely, anything with human DNA, more than one cell, and alive in the biological sense. It is not in the least bit clear to me that every object meeting this definition should be treated equally when defining "life"

Christy, a sensible blogger, made the following reply:

I'm with you on the part where people are created in the image of God in a way that the rest of creation is not. As for the definition of "life", when it comes to Terri Schiavo, I go with the obvious - as she is not brain dead, she is alive. I am uncomfortable with making a decision about whether or not the godlike portion of her is dead - that raises a whole host of questions for me. What about developmentally disabled people or those who are severely disabled and unable to communicate? Are we saying that their lives do not have value? What constitutes the godlike portion of a person? What does it mean that we are created in the image of God - is it the ability to reason or something else? I'd be interested in hearing your take on all that.

To which I replied, among other things:

Just because I think that Terri Shiavo's body should be allowed to die doesn't mean that I think that allowing it to die is a good thing, or even an OK thing. I think that the entire situation is tragic. It does mean that I think it is a better option than forcing her body to remain alive, given that a good portion of her brain, including her ability to interact with the physical world, is already dead. Maybe her spirit has already returned to God, or maybe it is locked in her body waiting for release. In either case I think that allowing her body to finish dying is the best of some very bad choices.

The reason that I didn't actually answer her question is that after about an hour of typing I realized that this was a little more involved than I thought. Answering her question is what I expect this blog to be about for a while.

For starters, note that in the original post I said "the essentially god-like portion of Terri Shiavo is already dead", while in my second post I said "Maybe her spirit has already returned to God, or maybe it is locked in her body waiting for release" But isn't Terri's spirit that part of her which is most "godlike?" If so, then which part of Terri is it that I think has died, and why does the death of that part make it OK to let the rest of her body die?

I find that I am suddenly confused about the meaning of lots of words that I thought I understood, like "life," "death," and "human." And suddenly that are a whole host of ways to pass from "life" to "death" (whatever that means): One can die, one can be allowed to die, one can be forced to die, and one can be killed. Similarly, one can live, one can be allowed to live, one can be forced to live, and one can be created (in the sense of procreation). One can choose to procreate, one can be forced to procreate, one can be allowed to procreate, one can be prevented from procreating, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. Then, for each one of these actions, there are a host of possible moral judgements. Say, for example, that a certain person is "allowed to live". It may be "essential" that they be allowed to live. It may be merely "good" that they are allowed to live. It may be "tolerable" that they are allowed to live. It may be a "crime" that they are allowed to live.


No wonder, then, that I am so ambivalent about things like:
  • abortion
  • physician-assisted suicide
  • suicide in the case of terminal illness
  • euthanasia
  • war
  • the exploitation of poor nations by rich nations
  • the death penalty

To say nothing of eating meat (the rest of my family are vegetarians).

It really doesn't look like I'll make it through this in one post.

1 Comments:

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Christy said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Greg. You certainly picked some big topics - these questions were much easier before the advent of advanced medical technology. I'll be interested in seeing your further thoughts on this.

 

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