Last week, Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law was upheld; Sunday marked the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
I do not intend to address these decisions as legal matters. It is important to question the proper extent of a person’s freedom under the law, but for most of us this extent is determined by powers beyond our own. Of a more immediate concern to us is the way in which the individual avails himself of his unique spiritual freedom — the freedom of his own will. I would like to speak not to the broad question of legal rights, but to what in every specific clash between good and evil is the right choice always available to us as metaphysically free individuals: that choice which honors the inviolable sanctity of human life.
For this choice to have any claim to righteousness, human life must have some claim to dignity. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights. Life, then, has the dignity of a gift; our very existence is a mark of love. Some claim our dignity derives from our moral freedom, and indeed, life does have this additional dignity: That, being loved into existence, we are, ourselves, free to choose to love and hence destroy its primary dignity, the will can choose to deprive itself of its own life, and hence, to destroy its second dignity. For this reason, our dignity cannot and does not derive from the untrammeled ability to choose just anything, but derives precisely from our ability to choose life (even the life of life). Life demands to be sustained by the will it sustains in turn.
If our dignity derived from something external to us and transient, then our dignity would be impermanent, non-essential. Yet every noble sentiment in our souls opposes this view. Thus the dignity of the human person is no more rooted in cleanliness, painlessness or self-sufficiency than it is in size or age or intelligence or health or anything but life itself. The broken elder who does not want to live anymore and the fetus who does not know she lives at all both have dignity precisely because they live.
There are some who deny such peripheral lives their sanctity, and it is often in the tenderness of their hearts that they are so deceived. They see a senescent body wracked by the pain of living or an embryonic body insensate and perhaps unloved, and wrapping themselves in the unimpeachable veil of compassion, they minister death like medicine. Yet their compassion is a mask through which they cannot see when they look at each other and at themselves; underneath they are angels not of light but, simply and starkly, of death — acquiescent, agnostic and ultimately inhuman.
It is not mercy to end an unwanted life whose bearer cannot speak for itself; it is mercy to make it wanted. It is not mercy to affirm the despair of a person who has despaired of her own dignity; it is mercy to affirm her dignity. To endorse abortion or euthanasia speaks not merely to a political persuasion or scientific conviction, nor yet, necessarily, to any brooding malice, but to a fundamental confusion in the human soul, valuing happiness over virtue, surrender over sacrifice, freedom over life — as though the one contained the other and not the other way around.
Life is sacred; it is holy; it catches eternity in the intake of its breath. Yet it is fragile, it calls us by name as its brother or sister, it begs us to defend it at all costs, even when its only humble virtue is the simple fact that it exists. Let us pray for those whose lives have been lost by violence of any kind; for first and foremost, a culture of life is a culture of love.
Nicholas Collura is a junior in Calhoun College.