Right to Life


Despite rampant moral relativism, the commandment “thou shalt not kill” is as such not in dispute: it is generally considered immoral to kill other people. For this reason, much of the debate around right-to-life issues actually has to do with the question when life begins and ends. Abortion providers and women seeking abortion will try to define the begin of life in a way that allows them to say that a foetus is not a human being; surgeons specialized in organ transplantation and their clients must be expected to argue that a person can be considered “dead” even at a time when their organs are still fit for transplantation. Such arguments are thus usually driven by the personal interest of those making them. Psychologists call this “the avoidance of cognitive dissonance”: people generally do not like to admit to themselves and the rest of the world that what they are doing is wrong; therefore they happily use and accept any argument, no matter how absurd, that seems to provide justification for their actions.

The opponents of abortion or organ transplantation, by contrast, usually do not have any comparable interest: they have no personal benefit from abortions not taking place, and they even cannot exclude that, on some day in the future, they might come in a situation where their own lives could be prolonged through the implantation of donated organs. Thus, their point of view usually is that of a neutral observer, or even that of a person (potentially) arguing against its own interest.[1] They can claim not to have any self-interest in mind, which provides their views with a greater credibility.

When Does Life Begin?

Life does not begin, but it is passed on from one generation to the next. A female egg cell and a male sperm cell are both living human cells. But it is at the moment of conception, when egg cell and sperm cell merge, that a new human individual with a unique genetic identity comes into being. Therefore, conception means the beginning of a new human existence.

Arguments that seek to establish a later stage of development as the beginning of life set aside the essential criterion of a new genetic identity. Instead, they make the existence of “life” dependent on accidental criteria, such as consciousness, self-consciousness, personhood, the ability to care for oneself, the ability to form a personal will, the ability to feel pain, or similar. According to these arguments, it would be no injustice to kill someone who feels no pain, or who is unable to form a will to survive. It should be noted, however, that some of these criteria are not even fulfilled by all children after their birth, others not even by all adult persons. While they have been crafted to justify abortion, those arguments could equally be used to justify the killing of adult persons.

In addition, those criteria are vague and leave unlimited room for manipulations. While it is fairly easy to objectively distinguish an unfertilized egg cell from an embryo, it is nearly impossible to define the moment in which a person acquires personhood or self-consciousness. Such arguments therefore do nothing else than to confer nearly unlimited powers over the unborn child to those who are in a position to impose their terminology.

Some argue that the implantation of the embryo should be identified as the moment where human life begins. This approach would lead to the opening of a time window between conception and implantation during which the embryo would enjoy no legal protection, whereas embryos created in vitro would remain without legal protection even for an unlimited period of time. To such proposals it must be objected that (1) the human embryo is ‘alive’ even before the moment of implantation, and (2) that its genetic identity differs from that of both parents.

There can therefore be no reasonable doubt that life begins at conception. That position is not grounded in “religious belief”, but in reason and science.

When Does Life End?

Death is the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. The cessation of some biological functions, for example the loss of consciousness, even if that loss seems permanent, is not death.

Progress in the medical sciences has led to a number of grave ethical dilemmas with regard to the appropriate treatment of persons at the end of their lives. One of these dilemmas concerns the treatment of persons who have fallen into coma, i.e. into a (seemingly) permanent status of unconsciousness, but who can, with the help of modern technology be kept alive for many years or even decades. Indeed, cases have been reported where persons woke up from coma after as much as 19 years, and the longest reported coma was that of a woman that who fell into coma at the age of six (following a mishandled anaesthesia) and died 37 years later, aged 43. While there is a controversy around the question whether or not comatose persons, whose situation some consider to be an unacceptable violation of their human dignity, should be euthanized rather than being artificially kept alive, the fact that they are alive is not controversial.

By contrast, the development of organ transplantation technologies has led a very different dilemma, namely the question whether a person whose organs are still apt to be harvested and transplanted can really be considered ‘dead’. Very paradoxically, what is needed for transplantation are “living” organs of “dead” persons.

The criterion of “brain death”, which is currently used to determine whether the organs of a person may be harvested for transplantation purposes, was developed in 1968 by an ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School precisely for the purpose of making available organs for organ transplantation, thereby responding for an increasing demand. Legislation adopted in several countries appears to serve a similar interest, providing that the consent of a person to be an organ donor may be pre-supposed if there is no explicit declaration to opt out. But even in countries where an explicit consent (‘opt-in’) is required, that consent usually relates to the person’s willingness to donate its organs “after its death”, and one may wonder whether the criterion of “brain death” corresponds to that condition.

In recent times, there have been increasing doubts with regard to the criterion of “brain death”. Critics point out that some cases are known where people who already had been declared “brain-dead” have recovered from that state, and that the criterion does not take into consideration all cerebral functions. It has been demonstrated that several bodily functions have continued for considerable time after “brain death”, including the case of the “Erlangen baby”, where a “brain-dead” woman was kept alive with artificial means in order to allow her to carry to term the child she was pregnant with. The attempt to save the baby’s life finally remained unsuccessful, but it nevertheless is an established fact that the “brain-dead” woman remained alive for several weeks. In all these cases, it remains unclear whether “brain death” was simply a wrong diagnosis, or whether the criterion itself is flawed.

The situation can be summarized by saying that it is not possible to determine the moment of death in a similarly straightforward way as one can define conception as the beginning of a new human life. Nonetheless, it is clear that a precautionary principle must be applied, so that in case of reasonable doubt a human person should be assumed to live rather than to be dead. The definition of “brain death” currently in use cannot be considered a valid criterion.

Exceptions from the Right to Life

Without doubt, in each and every catalogue of human rights, the right to life must be the most high-ranking: a person that loses its life loses the enjoyment of all other rights as well.

Yet even the right to life is not an absolute: it can be superseded in particular situations where the lives of other persons are at stake.

Examples include:

  • Legitimate self defence: a person may legitimately kill another person in self-defence, provided that no other means of self-defence is available.
  • A person can legitimately be required to risk his/her life in order to defend the common good. This may include the obligation to military service (including in war times), in order to contribute to the collective self-defence of a country. It may also include the obligation to risk one’s life in a situation of danger, e.g. for members of a fire squad, or for policemen defending the public order.
  • Capital punishment: the death penalty is not in and by itself illegitimate, if it is proportionate to the crime that must be sanctioned ad/or to the danger that the delinquent represents for society. People arguing against the death penalty usually do not argue that the death penalty is in all cases unjust, but they point at the risk of judicial errors and express discomfort at the idea that the State should have the right to kill. Such arguments are certainly worthy of consideration, but they do not suffice to demonstrate the general illegitimacy of capital punishment.

As one can clearly see from the first and the last indent of the above list, a difference should be made between innocent life (which enjoys absolute protection) and the life of an aggressor (which may enjoy less protection). Also, there is a difference between situations where a person’s life is taken and other situations where a person may be required to put its life at a risk.

[1]       This corresponds to the criterion of the “veil of ignorance”, developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice