The date that President Bush chose for his fellow Americans to honor the sanctity of human life is significant for two reasons. First, it fell on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Secondly, it is one day prior to the 34th anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision that drove a sword into the nation’s commitment to the sanctity of human life, leaving a wound that had remained open and crying out to be healed for more than three decades.
Critics will complain that the presidential proclamation is religion-based and violates the separation of church and state. Yet, as the president makes clear in the first sentence of the text, it is historically and essentially American: “Am--erica was founded on the principle that we are all endowed by our Creator with the right to life and that every individual has dignity and worth.” The Founding Fa--thers did not separate politics from religion to the extent that they denied that man is blessed by his Creator with a special dignity.
“National Sanctity of Life Day,” says President Bush, “serves as a reminder that we must value human life in all forms not just those considered healthy, wanted or convenient. Together, we can work toward a day when the dignity and humanity of every person is respected.”
These words echo what other political figures have already stated. U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, said: “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
“The message of the United States,” he said the following year, “is a spiritual message. It is the message of human ideals; it is the message of human dignity.”
What has happened to America that has moved her to the point where she needs to be reminded of something so basic as the sanctity of life and human dignity? It has been the ascendancy of a “quality of life” ethic that has eclipsed that of the “sanctity of life.” One of the most influential proponents of the former view is Peter Singer, who cavalierly dismisses notions such as “sanctity of life” and “dignity” as “fine phrases [that] are the last resource of those who have run out of argument.”
Singer and his ilk, however, provide us with a conundrum: How is it possible that material possession, mental and physical health, and social status, can be good “qualities,” yet the beneficiaries of these qualities, the human being, himself, is judged devoid of any innate good quality? How can the things a person can have be of greater value that what he is as a human being?
We have foolishly emptied ourselves of value and projected value onto externals. “I am not interested in the necessities of life,” said Oscar Wilde, “Give me the luxuries.”
President Bush is calling America to reflect on its priorities: the value of human life, its inherent sanctity, is prior in importance to the things that may be added to it. Being precedes having; dignity cannot be undone; sanctity is inviolate.
At World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Pope John Paul II also reminded America of its great tradition and profound obligation to respect the rights of all human beings: The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and the most defenseless. … America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person.”
America needs to be reminded of what would impoverish it to forget, namely that all human beings possess the right to life and that no person holds dominion over any other person. If this is forgotten, equality, justice and peace are unlikely.