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Right to Life vs. Sanctity of Life

Perhaps the most basic right that a human being possesses under the law of an organized society is the right to be born and to continue living. Much attention in recent times has been given to the right of a fetus (Latin for "little one") to exist until the time of birth. One writer who should be commended for addressing some of the philosophical and theological issues pertaining to people with disabilities is Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer. However, his prime foci in the book he co-authored with Dr. C. Everett Koop, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, were abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia and not issues specifically related to disability.

Within the scdpe of the abortion issue lies the matter of terminating a pregnancy if some irregularity is discovered in the fetus, thereby warding off the possibility of "burdening the parents and society" with a child with disabilities. The authors remind us that. . .

the graduates of American medical schools have traditionally taken the Hippocratic oath, which goes back more than two thousand years at the time of their commencement. The Declaration of Geneva (adopted in September 1948 by the General Assembly of the World Medical Organization and modeled closely on the Hippocratic oath) became used as the graduation oath by more and more medical schools. It includes, "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life; from the time of conception." This concept for the preservation of human life has been the basis of the medical profession and society in general. It is significant that, when the University of Pittsburgh changed from the Hippocratic oath to the Declaration of Geneva in 1971, the students deleted "from the time of conception" from the clause beginning "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life." The University of Toronto School of Medicine has also removed the phrase "from the time of conception" from the form of oath it now uses.4

Therefore it is not difficult for some to take the step from dismissing a fetus as being a viable life to destroying a fetus that has some irregularity. This may be done in the name of humaneness, believing that by destroying a,"nonlife" you have preserved the quality of other "valid" lives - in particular the quality of life of the parents and siblings. Furthermore, the argument may continue, "ought not the population at large be spared the financial burden of providing care for those potentially disabled children?"

Thus the question is posed: Does a child with disabilities have a right to life? Furthermore, does a fetus, for which medical experts have declared the possibility of being disabled, have any right to be protected from being killed? Necessarily, the law must address any issue pertaining to "rights;" but theologically if we debate the questions at hand on the grounds of our intrinsic or civil rights, we are approaching this subject from a wrong perspective. If we fight this battle on the grounds of rights, then what about the right of the mother to control what happens in her own body or the right of the family not to be unduly restricted by the (perhaps) relentless burden of daily care of a child with disabilities? Then what about the right of the population not to be encumbered with a heavier tax burden, higher insurance premiums, and the extra expense of architectural adjustments in its public buildings in order to accommodate the special needs of certain groups? When "your rights" infringe upon "my rights," then the battle is truly engaged!

Theologically, the so-called "right to life" terminology is a misnomer. Who, pray tell, has a right to life? I don't. You don't. And neither does a person with disabilities. The Scriptures, rather, teach the sanctity of life in that all life is God-given. Life is a gift from God. Job declared, . . . the breath of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4). The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that all the days of life that a man lives. . . God has given him. . . (Ecclesiastes 5:18, 8:15). Deuteronomy 30:20 reads, For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land. . . Acts 17:28 says, For in him we live and move and have our being. Colossians 1:17 teaches that all things are held together by Him. James 4:14,15 gives us to understand that the continuance or end of our lives is subject to God's will.

All life, then, being God-given, God-sustained, and ultimately God-terminated, belongs strictly to the province of God's authority. If God has chosen to give life, to a person with disabilities or to a fetus who has possible disabilities, then who BUT GOD shall dare to take unto herself or himself the authority to end that life? Life, human life-all human life-belongs to God. In a sense He loans it as a trust, a sacred trust. He alone has the authority to give, withhold, sustain, and withdraw life. And so we address this issue of life on the grounds of its sacredness. not on rights, at least as far as theology is concerned.

Next: The Cause of Disabilities