Thursday, August 27, 2009

How highly do you value Life?

This past weekend I watched a film called Lines that Divide which documents recent development in stem cell research. The documentary joins the bioethics debate over whether or not research using stem cells taken from human embryos is a moral hazard. Honestly I was largely uniformed about the issue prior to my viewing, which allowed me to appreciate the care taken to explain the topic. Yet, more than anything it challenged me to consider why I value life and to consider how much value I place upon it.

Unfortunately in our culture that word -- Life -- gets thrown around a lot without true care for its significance or meaning. You have it right now. You could lose it a moment from now. Ponder it's meaning. Is it existence? Is it the absence of death? Does it even end with death? Where does it really begin? These are important questions for you're daily decisions (why should you really value eating healthily?) as well as for determining the value you assign to yourself and other beings.

Before you rush to answer any of those questions, it is important to recognize that life is mysterious. There have been many attempts to unlock the secrets of this mystery, to harness it's power, to discover it's source. Science seeks to discover the truth about this mystery. In that quest scientist find opportunities to improve the quality or extend the length of our life. Yet, it seems that the more we discover about life the more we are able to manipulate it in some fashion. This has been abundantly clear with stem cell research, particularly embryonic stem cells. It is this ability to manipulate life that raises the ethical questions that we can only answer after stating why we value life.

C.S. Lewis would say that we cannot answer that question outside of a moral framework, which he calls the Tao, though I'm sure many of you are more familiar with the term Natural Law. This moral framework is discovered, not developed. Lewis would say it is around us and in our hearts. It is what compels us to argue for fairness, it stimulates our knee-jerk reactions against oppression and injustice, and it screams at us when we violate another person's life. This is the first key to determining the value we place on life, namely that there is value inherent within ourselves and others that is readily apparent.

But, we must ask where does this value in life come from? Some say (I find this argument common among libertarians) that our existence gives us value. This man centered, existentialist explanation, however, leaves me unsatisfied and terrified by its implications. I'm unsatisfied because right and wrong is reduced to 'not harming others' and terrified because "existence" is difficult to define. Indeed, this is the very problem being debated in scientific circles right now -- does human existence begin at birth? at conception? as an embryo? Most say there is no clear answer. And therefore, the value placed upon an embryo, a fetus, or a human is decided on an individual basis.

I would posit that the source of life, and thus the value of life, comes from God. God speaks at creation and life begins -- Genesis 2:7 says that God "...breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." (Gen 2:7). If this informs you're understanding of life, you cannot place a high enough value on it. For the value of it is not yours to decide, it is the Creator's. If you do not affirm this position, then I would encourage you to consider reading C.S. Lewis' book, The Abolition of Man. He wrote it because he was concerned that the modern world (and now even more post-modernity) was losing their belief in Natural Law. He outlines the consequences of such rejection as the abolition of man.

I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the battle of man's future is being debate right now over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. There are many tangential battle's, but this is certainly one worth being informed about. Watch the documentary, think about how much and why you value life.


  1. Funny, I bought The Abolition of Man on Wednesday....

  2. This is definitely a topic that our modern generation is facing. Moreso than ever before, with genetic engineering and embryo manuipulation becoming accessible, humans must ask the hard questions of morality. Should we play god? What is right and what crosses the line?

    Great post!