What Makes a Human Life "Meaningful"?

Please Note: In order to conserve space, footnotes are not included in this article but are marked with an asterisk and may be found in Why ProLife? by Randy Alcorn, Chapter 7, pages 48-53.

babyDr. William Harrison, a pro-choice advocate, argues, “The real issue in the abortion debate today is not when life begins, but is it morally meaningful life.”*

But who determines which lives are meaningful and which aren’t? The answer, always, is that powerful people decide whether weaker people’s lives are meaningful.

A Double Standard

Peter Singer, the Princeton ethics professor, wrote, “The life of a fetus is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc.”* (Parents paying for their children to attend Singer’s classes might want to consider that he also believes there’s moral justification for killing the elderly.)

A Portland, Oregon, abortionist, Jim Newhall, said, “Not everybody is meant to be born. I believe, for a baby, life begins when his mother wants him.”* So a human life becomes real and meaningful when another person wants it to be?

In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision the Supreme Court questioned whether the unborn had “meaningful” lives. But meaningful to whom? Doesn’t every human being regard as meaningful the life he had in the womb, since if it had been terminated, he would not now be alive?

Whites decided that blacks were less human. Men decided women had fewer rights. Nazis decided Jews’ lives weren’t meaningful. Now big people have decided that little people aren’t meaningful enough to have rights.

Personhood isn’t something to be bestowed on human beings by Ivy League professors intent on ridding society of “undesirables.” Personhood has an inherent value that comes from being a member of the human race. According to the Bible, this is part of being created in God’s image.

What Science Says of “Meaning”

What constitutes “meaningful” life? It’s a scientific fact that there are thought processes at work in unborn babies. The Associated Press reported a study showing “babies start learning about their language-to-be before they are born.” Studies show that while in their mothers’ wombs, “fetuses heard, perceived, listened and learned something about the acoustic structure of American English.”*

Newsweek states, “Life in the womb represents the next frontier for studies of human development, and the early explorations of the frontier...have yielded startling discoveries.”* The article says, “With no hype at all, the fetus can rightly be called a marvel of cognition, consciousness and sentience.” It also says that scientists have already detected sentience (self-awareness) in the second trimester.* The extraordinary capacities of preborn children have been well documented by scientific studies for years.*

5 monthsBy early in the second trimester the baby moves his hands to shield his eyes from bright light coming in through his mother’s body. “The fetus also responds to sounds in frequencies so high or low that they cannot be heard by the human adult ear.”* He hears loud music and covers his ears at loud noises from the outside world. At seventeen weeks, the child experiences Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, indicating that he’s not only sleeping but dreaming.* Can we say that someone capable of dreaming is incapable of thinking?

Undoubtedly, later abortions kill a sentient, thinking human being. By the end of the second trimester the “brain’s neural circuits are as advanced as a newborn’s.”* It seems unthinkable that anyone aware of the facts could defend the current legality of abortions in the second and third trimesters. Yet pro-choice advocates adamantly defend such abortions.

But are earlier abortions any better than later ones? Even in the case of early chemical abortions, which take life before there’s capacity for thought, death is just as real and significant. A living child who would’ve had a name, family, and life will now have none of these.

A Flawed Ethic

Singer says, “If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.”*

Singer suggests that individual human worth is based on its usefulness to others: “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”*

When Singer came to teach at Princeton, he was protested by Not Dead Yet, a disabilities rights group. They took offense at Singer’s books, which say it should be legal to kill disabled infants, as well as children and adults with severe cognitive disabilities.

Pro-choice logic started with abortion, but it hasn’t stopped there. Once it’s acceptable to kill unborn children, no one who’s weak or vulnerable can be safe. Do the handicapped have a meaningful life? How about the elderly? If those who cannot think don’t deserve to live, what about those who think incorrectly?

Dr. Charles Hartshorne of the University of Texas echoes Singer’s ethic: “Of course, an infant is not fully human.… I have little sympathy with the idea that infanticide is just another form of murder. Persons who are already functionally persons in the full sense have more important rights even than infants.”*

Is Anyone Safe?

David Boonin argues that abortion is “morally criticizable” yet “morally permissible.” It’s permissible, he says, because abortion may potentially produce “overall happiness.”* Like Singer, Boonin overlooks the fact that the same subjective sense of happiness (as measured by convenience and relief of stress or financial hardship) can be achieved by taking the lives of other people, not just the unborn. Once something is regarded as morally permissible because it seems to produce happiness, there’s nothing that can’t qualify.

Hidden beneath much of the discussion of what constitutes meaningful life is utilitarianism. Are mentally and physically disabled or disadvantaged people useful to the healthy and powerful, or are they a burden to us? As one feminist group points out, if unborn children are not safe, no one is safe:

Why ProLife?If we take any living member of the species homo sapiens and put them outside the realm of legal protection, we undercut the case against discrimination for everyone else. The basis for equal treatment under the law is that being a member of the species is sufficient to be a member of the human community, without consideration for race, gender, disability, age, stage of development, state of dependency, place of residence or amount of property ownership.*

Abortion has set us on a dangerous course. We may come to our senses and back away from the slippery slope. Or we may follow it to its inescapable conclusion—a society in which the powerful, for their own self-interest, determine which human beings will live and which will die.

University of Chicago biologist Dr. Leon Kass says, with the direction of modern science and medicine, “we are already witnessing the erosion of our idea of man as something splendid or divine, as a creature with freedom and dignity. And clearly, if we come to see ourselves as meat, then meat we shall become.”*

This is the world being shaped by the rhetoric of the abortion rights movement.

For more information on this subject, see Randy Alcorn's book Why ProLife?

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries