The Catholic Church has always defended the sanctity of human life. With advances in medical technology, that defense has organically evolved to represent life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
And that defense has consistently been put to the test by an increasingly secular world that would value human life only in terms of pleasure or function — as if a painful or difficult life, or even a "nonproductive" life, were not worth living.
However, it is important to notice that this valuing of life is really more universal to all religions and is not to be relegated to Catholicism or Christianity alone. In this ethical stance, the Church is not trying to impose its beliefs on others, but, rather, is calling all major religious traditions back to their deepest teachings, roots and values. Every great religious tradition includes profound teachings on the reverence due to reality, to living things — and especially to human persons.
Naturally, not all religious traditions live up to these teachings; sadly, neither does the Christian tradition. Furthermore, in some religions, certain countervailing precepts may be cited, usually of limited scope.
The annual March for Life in Washington for years was viewed from the outside as a "Catholic thing" or a "conservative Christian thing" — but the march appeals to all people of faith and goodwill, and more and more people are heeding that call each year.
In this light, it is worth reflecting on the deep pro-life aspects of the great world religions, so as not to fall prey to secular propaganda that would limit such ethical valuation to the "Christian tradition" or even the Catholic Church.
Certainly, the great Abrahamic, monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam, proclaiming God as Creator and all creation as good, stand most closely with Christianity on the sanctity of life.
Judaism, as we know, is the origin of the fundamental precept "Thou shalt not kill" in the Western tradition. And, of course, long before the Law was given to Moses, Cain was found liable for the killing of his brother Abel — indicating that the law of "respect for life" is, indeed, written on our hearts. And this reverence for life as the gift and prerogative of God extends to the womb.
In Psalm 139:13, we read, "Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb."
Islam, as well, teaches profound reverence for human life. In Surah 5:32, it states: "We ordained … that if anyone slew a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he slew the whole people: And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people."
Surah 6:151 states, "Take not life which Allah has made sacred." And Surah 17:32 states: "Kill not your offspring for fear of poverty; it is We [Allah] who provide for them and for you. Surely, killing them is a great sin."
Besides the Abrahamic religions, other traditions — though they may have a more undifferentiated or confusing metaphysics — have similar ethical teachings about the fundamental sanctity of life, which is to be reverenced and not destroyed, even at the cost of great sacrifice and self-discipline.
To be pro-life is to accept responsibility and sacrifice.
To the Hindu people, all living beings are sacred because they are parts of God and should be treated with respect and compassion. A great many Hindus are vegetarian because of this belief in the sanctity of life. Hinduism teaches that sacrifice is the noblest form of action and that the doors to ruin (anti-life) are the doors of lust, wrath and avarice.
In Buddhism, as well, though springing from the Hindu tradition as a reform movement and often presented in humanistic and even atheistic forms, the first commandment is: "Do not destroy life."
Giving, duty, renunciation and loving-kindness (toward friends and enemies alike) are among the Ten Perfections, and the man who conquers himself is considered greater than the one who battles a million men.
Jainism, another offshoot of Hinduism, and, like Buddhism, rejecting the caste system, lists as its first commandment: "Do not kill or hurt any living thing." By far, the most important teaching of Jainism is the principle of Ahimsa, or "non-injury," i.e., great reverence must be shown to all living things, and killing of any form of life is strictly forbidden. This requires, again, "conquering of one’s self," which is what "Jain" means.
According to the Sikh religion, with origins in Hinduism and later influence from Islam, bodies are produced by the One God the Creator, and then, by his order, souls are infused into bodies. Therefore, Sikhs believe that human life begins at conception and is sacred from the moment of conception: "In the first watch of the night, you were cast into the womb, by the Lord’s command" (Guru Granth Sahib, 74).
Confucianism in the Chinese tradition teaches a version of the Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you." The Constant Virtues include benevolence (think of others first) and propriety (reverence toward others). "Care for others" is the first concern, based on the sanctity of human life.
In Taoism, we find again a deep reverence for all life in its various forms. The specialized term for this is Lao Mu — the nurturing, creative force of life in the universe, which ought always to be respected.
Taoists are often vegetarians but also stress reverence for the autonomy of others and list "Caring Love" (ts’e) as the first of the virtues.
In the Japanese Shinto religion, one of their great 10 "Dos" is: "Be kind to others," while one of the great 10 "Do Nots" is: "Do not forget that the world is one great family." Shinto teaches that "all men are brothers," and "in all the world there is no such thing as a stranger."
While Shinto tends to shy away from moral absolutes, these foundational teachings could be the basis for a sanctity-of-life ethics in this tradition.
Zoroastrianism, originating in ancient Iran, teaches two independent and rival forces in nature, the good and the evil.
Man is free but must choose the good through truth, charity and good deeds if he is to be wise in this life and happy in eternity. One must wish others good, be kind and humble, control anger, respect the old and the young and be loving toward all. Again, we find here the foundations for a sanctity-of-life ethics.
Thus Catholics and Christians are not alone in their reverence for the sanctity of life, though Christianity affirms an even deeper foundation for this reverence in the belief that God himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, was incarnate in the womb of Mary.
Yet foundational elements of every great religious tradition on the face of the earth affirm this basic ethical understanding: Being, life and human life are mysterious and tremendous gifts of transcendent value calling for reverence, preservation and nurturing — not destruction — even in the face of great challenges, responsibilities and sacrifices. In the world today, it is primarily a degenerate secular Western society that rejects this fundamental sense of reverence for life.
The universal religious sense of the human race possesses this sensitivity, even though all cultures — including the Christian — often fail to live up to their deepest ideals. Thus, beyond all common human failings and hypocrisies, it is the incursion of moral relativism, hedonism and utilitarianism from the secular Western world — spreading around the globe — that undercuts and threatens all world religions, not just the Christian tradition.
Michael J. Healy, Ph.D., is chairman of the philosophy department and
member of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life
at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.