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Archive for July, 2012

Placing Value on Life:

 Case in Point—The Never-ending Abortion Issue

 

     Abortion is one of the most troubling and hotly debated issues of our time. Weighing the social value of life is at the heart of the abortion issue. It remains a permanent fixture of our social landscape because of its unending cultural conflict created by values, politics, and science. The reason for this is that abortion is so intimately intertwined with the social definition of life. Yet, despite the fact many people believe life begins at conception, it is ironic that all life itself is not universally valued. The one underlying universal in all this seems to be that social context (value judgments rendered in different social situations) dictates the relative value placed on life.

Why isn’t life universally valued? Because it all depends upon the differing social contexts related to life itself. Even those who view life as beginning at conception think contextually. This occurs when the life of the mother is at stake, or conception is due to rape or incest. Even with abortion, there is no unconditional universal value placed on all life.

The Value of Life in Different Social Settings

Many issues today have to do with the value that is placed on life in different social settings. Life issues include: abortion, the death penalty, suicide and the right-to-die among the terminally ill, slaughtering animal species so humans can eat and using animals in medical research, stem cell research with human embryos, and killing of enemy combatants during wartime. Lastly, there is murder. In 2010, there were 12,996  murders in the United States.

It is important to know that the value placed on life has always been dictated by social context. That is, conservatives overwhelmingly tend to support the death penalty and willingness for the state to take a human life, yet form the major support group against abortion. Liberals tend to support a ban or moratorium on the death penalty, yet often do not have a problem terminating the life of the unborn. Liberals tend to accept the right to die claims of the terminally ill, and conservatives and the Catholic Church generally see it as wrong or sinful. Both liberals and conservatives buy meat or fish at their local corner grocery store and both have no problem terminating life in the animal kingdom. Both liberals and conservatives serving in a war zone are, if necessary, willing to take the life of an enemy combatant. Even John Q. Citizen will take life in dire situations to protect family members or oneself when threatened.

Any one of the above issues can be explored in more detail as it relates to valuing life. But let’s get back to abortion and social context.

 The Issue

The crux of the abortion issue seems to come down to two opposing sides. They include, “a woman’s right to choose” fostered by liberals and woman’s groups, versus “a right to life” fostered by conservatives and Right-to-Life groups. One of the long-standing groups against abortion has been the Catholic Church. However, many Catholics worldwide, and others, want to overturn the Catholic Church’s long-standing ban on abortion. Abortion nevertheless violates one of the Church’s basic tenets—belief in the sanctity of life. This long-standing stance of the Catholic Church is an appeal to faith, particularly faith in the righteousness of the Church’s position taken.

Regardless of what side one politically comes down on regarding abortion , Right-to-Life groups do have scientific support with their definition of life. And, the best definition of life is a scientific one. That scientific support is more about what constitutes a “life form” than it is as to the precise moment life occurs.   The biological definition of a “life form” is very consistent with the social definition of human life as espoused by Right-to-Life groups.

In the 1940s and 1950s a common social definition of life was life begins at conception. According to scientists six characteristics define what a “life form” is. Not everyone agrees on a social definition of life but there are generally accepted biological manifestations that life exhibits the following phenomena: Organization, Metabolism, Growth, Adaptation, Response to Stimuli, and Reproduction. All six characteristics are required for a population to be considered a life form. Fetuses, in the earliest of their development, manifest all six characteristics.

So why is there such social conflict over the issue of abortion? If biologists have given us a definition of life that is correct, then why is our social definition of life since the 1940s and 1950s so out of whack now? The answer appears to be political, not scientific or data-driven. It’s all about changing social underlying values that often masquerade in political debates as objective argumentation.

The Politics of Abortion

     One of the very strongest forces that contextualizes abortion and other issues where the value of life is concerned, is politics. At the heart of all politics is value judgment. A Women’s right to choose is more than a slogan. Feminists and abortion rights groups reject any political proposals that would seek to protect the unborn. Right-to-Life groups are likewise very political in supporting efforts by Republicans in Congress who put forth anti-abortion legislation.

What makes the abortion issue so beguiling is that the only perceived way groups can assure the rights of their own group is by denying the rights of opposing groups. This entrenchment on both sides of the issue implies that logic and reason are the enemies of both sides; values and value judgment dominate the political debate over abortion. Not surprisingly the biological definition of life carries very little weight in the political debate over abortion. Those for and against abortion prefer to use their own definition of when life begins. It is unfortunately a debate where definition of when life begins continues to produce great division among the public.

     It is for these reasons that the issue of abortion is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. It is very unfortunate that life under all circumstances is not universally valued. But all of these differing social contexts that is our present day reality worldwide, would all fade into dust  if the world ever chooses to engage in war with atomic bombs.

      May that day—never come!  But if that day does arrive, two things are very clear. One, we will no longer have a need to debate whether life begins at conception or birth. And two, on that day, society may finally unconditionally value and appreciate all lifeas it witnesses humanity meet its end in death through a self-inflicted worldwide suicide known as a nuclear annihilation.

 

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