Discussion Starter: Life Ethics

In September, Missouri became the second state (after South Dakota) to define life as beginning at conception and abortion as ending the life of a human being. An effort to include the definition in Missouri's constitution failed, but Colorado will vote today on an amendment defining the unborn as "persons" from the moment of conception.

"They do help the unborn, because whether those kind of amendments win or lose with the voters, they expose voters to the truth. It creates a discussion in the public about what is the unborn child? Are they human life? If they are human life, do they deserve the same rights as the rest of us—the right to live, of course, being the chief right among those? So I don't believe whether they help the unborn is based on the success of the amendment, but rather does it cause a discussion, does it make people think about it, does it put the truth out there? And I think yes, it does all of those things."

Kristi Burton Brown, spokesperson, 2008 Colorado Personhood Amendment

"Of course laws specifying that a new human being comes into existence when fertilization takes place help the unborn. It's a way of publicly saying that, however weak and vulnerable this tiny human organism may be, it is one of us. Our lives begin in weakness and dependence and, of course, often end there as well. But from zygote to irreversible coma we remain equally human. We should be glad whenever the law acknowledges this."

Gilbert Meilaender, professor of theology, Valparaiso University

"There is a sound scientific basis for calling the unborn 'human beings.' The debate remains whether it is warranted ethically or legally not to protect the lives of some human beings as much as we protect the lives of others, because of some characteristic they lack. But we can't engage in an honest debate about that if we are not clear that we are discussing human beings with different characteristics, not humans vs. non-humans—hence the value of laws defining personhood."

John Kilner, professor of bioethics, Trinity International University

"The ultimate battle in this is who's a person and who's not a person. If you can divide people out of being a person, you can do anything you want to them. At the beginning of life and at the end of the life—we're facing the same debate with Alzheimer's patients and comatose patients. Is this a person? If it's not a person, we can give them aid in dying. The most basic issue in these debates is what is a person, and I think for too long Christians have let secular ethicists control that debate."

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David Stevens, president, Christian Medical Association

"We really should be protecting human life at all of its stages, and that's a way we can do that regardless of our religious convictions. It's a good thing; it can't hurt. It's impossible to know what effect seeing that written out somewhere will have on somebody in a moment of crisis. It's a good first step, something we can all acknowledge as Americans."

Caitrin Nicol, managing editor, The New Atlantis

"Just like a baby needs to crawl before walking, in our efforts we need to take the necessary steps in order to reach our goal. When passing laws, you generally need to have enough of the public understand and be in agreement with the effort, and there's work left to be done to educate the public on the science of human life. If the public is not well enough informed, then opponents see their opening and are able to exploit it."

Wendy Wright, president, Concerned Women for America

"Historically, laws change as moral sensibilities change. But laws also somewhat shape and guide moral outlooks. So the influence runs both ways. If law defines unborn humans as 'persons,' and if all persons are understood to be protected by the rights pertaining to personhood, including the right to life, then, yes, laws defining personhood will protect the unborn. In the U.S., however, the situation is obviously complicated. As a society we do not agree about some basic moral assumptions. … In the long run, what will 'stick' will be the result of real moral persuasion, not coercion, resulting in deep cultural change that ends up embodied in legal structures reflecting the moral norms."

Christian Smith, author, Moral, Believing Animals

"On the abortion issue, I don't think it does because I don't think it addresses the primary question which is the relationship between the parents of the unborn child and that child. The mom says, when you have an abortion, 'I can't be your parent. Either I can't or I won't, don't want to have a relationship with you.' [Laws] don't affect the issue, because if they don't want to have a relationship with that child, then they don't want to carry them or place them in a relationship that says 'I want what's best for you.' "

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Bob Smietana, author, The Breath of Life (forthcoming)

"Useful discussion of ethical issues related to human embryos, such as abortion and genetic screening, is hampered by a kind of tunnel vision. Those on the right focus almost exclusively on the personhood of embryos, while those on the left focus almost exclusively on rights and choice. Defining personhood doesn't move the conversation forward; it merely codifies a familiar position. What's missing from many discussions about reproductive ethics is compassionate consideration of the stories of real people grappling with unplanned pregnancies or a family history of genetic disease. Moving beyond the same old arguments to consider the complexity of reproductive decision-making will carry the conversation forward in a way that new laws will not."

Ellen Painter Dollar, blogger, Choices That Matter

Related Elsewhere:

Previous topics for discussion included whether Christians should denounce believers who vilify others, Christians must pray in public forums using Jesus' name, whether they have a responsibility to have children, whether churches should increase their 2011 operating budgets, a Protestant-less Supreme Court, Mother's Day worship, incorporating churches, whether evangelicals are doing a good job at racial integration, whether Christians should leave the American Medical Association, the most significant change in Christianity over the past decade, whether the Supreme Court should rule that memorial crosses are secular, multisite campuses vs. church plants, and whether Christians should fast during Ramadan with Muslims.

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