What does it mean to be pro-life? There is some confusion as to what the term implies. If a person is opposed to abortion, must that same person also be opposed to war, or the death penalty?
Indeed, religious conservatives tend as a whole to be anti-abortion, but also pro-death penalty and pro-just-war theory. Some on the religious left argue that to be consistently pro-life, you have to oppose all these things.
But there are other mixes: many of the secular left who are pro-abortion are also anti-war. And they are happy to denounce pro-lifers for what they perceive as inconsistencies on their part. A case in point is an article that appeared in the Canberra Times on August 21, 2006, later reprinted in onlinopinion.com (as “Embryos versus soldiers,” 8 September).
Ben McNeil, a lecturer in environmental issues at the University of New South Wales, takes the pro-life camp to task for opposing abortion but not opposing the war in Iraq. In his blurb it says he has “expertise in the global carbon cycle”. He may have that, but he does not seem to have expertise in moral reasoning or clear thinking.
His argument is brief and slight: “Particular politicians always seem to bring the sanctity of life issue to the forefront of the stem-cell debate. But if they supported the moral argument for the war then they must also support the moral argument for stem cell research.”
He continues: “To avert the reign of terror and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, those in favour of the war in Iraq argued that the human sacrifice of soldiers was a worthy and necessary initial cost to save many more lives in the future. Surely the same sacrifice principle is central to the debate over stem cell research?”
And he notes that some religious groups are, in his view, more consistent here than politicians like Tony Abbott: “The Anglican and Catholic Churches, however, have been more consistent in their views, opposing both the war and stem cell research. This gives them a respected stance in the debate.”
What are we to make of this argument and others like it? Are the critics right? Does one have to oppose all killing to be truly pro-life and not be hypocritical?
The answer to these questions depends in part on how we define our terms. For example, what do we mean by killing? Of course any court of law worth its salt makes fundamental distinctions here. Murder is not the same as accidental death. Manslaughter is not the same as self-defence. Courts and laws recognize that not all killing is the same, and that not all killing is wrong, or of equal moral censure.
And many of the world’s great religions also make such differentiations, such as Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, go back to the sixth command. It literally says, “you shall not commit murder”. It does not proscribe killing. This is for the simple reason that God authorizes killing on various occasions, including the death penalty, the judgment of Canaan, and self defence.
So religious critics who argue that Christians must oppose all killing are simply wrong here. The Bible does not enjoin that, nor should we.
And just war theory, as it has developed over millennia, argues that defensive wars and wars to stop aggression can be morally justified. Pre-emptive strikes are a more difficult case, and people can argue over the merits of whether intervention in Iraq was justifiable. But Christian tradition has long recognised the right to kill under certain circumstances. And that is usually done by the state, not the individual. Thus governments have a right to implement the death penalty, to raise up armies, and to arm police forces. And individuals may have a right to self defence in certain circumstances.
Thus McNeil makes some conceptual errors here, and muddies the waters when more clarity and nuance was required. But there is another major error that needs to be addressed here. McNeil argues that if some soldiers can be sacrificed to save many people, why not sacrifice some embryos to possibly save many people? Several things can be said about this.
First, he may be unwittingly conceding some ground here to the pro-life camp. If the early embryo is just a clump of cells and not a person, then there is no sacrifice being made. So his analogy falls down completely. There is only sacrifice if the embryo is indeed a person, a very young member of the human race. Does McNeil believe this? If not, he needs to come up with a new argument.
Second, he makes a monumental error of judgment here by seeking to equate the two. Australia does not have conscription (at least not now). Thus every soldier in the army (and by extension, in Iraq) is there by free choice. Individuals volunteered to join the army, knowing that this would mean being willing to sacrifice one’s life for one’s country. It is all voluntary, all volitional. There is nothing of the sort happening with the hapless embryo. He or she is being destroyed without permission or consent. This runs against the basic ethical code of medical research: patient consent is always crucial, and obviously an embryo cannot give consent.
Thus the analogy is without substance, and McNeil’s whole argument comes down like a house of cards. As such, he will have to try much harder if he wants to add anything of substance to this important debate.