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If life is not sacred...

  • 06 October 2021
  Some weeks ago I wrote about the taking of human life and of the loss of its sacred connotations. I argued that the decisive consideration governing recent legislation in such issues as abortion and assisted dying has been the appeal to individual choice, supported by compassion for people who suffer from their denial. Whether we welcome this trend or regret it, as I do, we all have an interest in asking what effect it will have on society. In this article I would like to explore this question in a way that opens rather than closes conversation.  

I should begin by acknowledging the complexities of this discussion. There are significant differences between abortion and assisted dying. Those who defend assisted dying acknowledge that it involves taking a life. Many who defend abortion deny it, seeing the foetus as part of the woman’s own body. That argument recognises in part the unique status of the foetus. It begins and grows in a woman’s body, and so can be seen as part of her body. It is, however, a unique part of her body in that it has and develops the potential for independent life. To that extent it is also a living being in its own right. This double status of the move from dependence to independence of the foetus means that there is a physical difference between removing a foetus early in term, late in term and taking the life of a child after birth.

Whether those differences makes an ethical, and so should make a legal, difference is the point in dispute. In most Australian States abortion is available for up to twenty weeks when it is conducive to the health of the pregnant woman, and also later though subject to further restrictions. At this stage the foetus can move and hear. It seems reasonable to describe abortion at this stage as taking life, allowing for strongly held conflicting views on its ethical value.

The focus on the individual choice of the person who is pregnant or who seeks assistance to die is also part of a more complex picture. It prioritises one of many relationships involved in a person’s life and death. In the case of abortion these include the relationship to the man involved in conception, to family and friends, employers and fellow workers, and doctors and nurses participating in the abortion. In the case of assisted dying they also