Making Dismemberment/ Decapitating a Human Being Unlawful

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Prof. William Wagner

WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom at SAU

The Ethical Dimensions and Serious Societal Implications of Not Enacting Michigan’s Proposed Dismemberment Abortion Ban

           The Michigan House of Representatives and Senate consider this week whether to ban dismemberment abortions.  The proposed law makes it unlawful for a physician to deliberately dismember limbs or decapitate the head of an unborn living child.

           The way one chooses to view the ethical dimensions of allowing dismemberment of live human children has serious societal implications.  Because of these serious societal implications, Christian people ought to support Michigan’s proposed Dismemberment Abortion Ban. (House Bill 4320; Senate Bill 0229) #SLGwitness #GreatLakesJusticeCenter

Two Jurisprudential World Views

Fundamentally, two jurisprudential views of the world exist.[1]  One can embrace either that law is something we discover or that it is something we create.[2]  Within those two broad vistas, of course, diverse shades and textures may be discerned.  Still, the paradigms are useful.  The first view sees God (or some surrogate) as the source of law and rights, while the latter makes man the measure of all things.[3] 

A. The Objective Worldview Lens: An Inviolable Standard

Present in Divine / Natural Law, Reflected in Current Statutory Law

            Under the first view, human laws reflect revealed divine or natural law, and they may be just or unjust, depending on the clarity with which they reflect those objective standards.  The Declaration of Independence, of course, reflects such a view: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, . . . that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights . . . .”[4]  The Creator makes truth and other moral absolutes evident to us; we do not create them.  Moreover, the Creator makes us creatures; we are not the creator, and, as such, we are subordinate to—though certainly a part of—that realm of absolutes.  This is inherent in our traditional natural law view, which “asserts a person’s fundamental obligation (according to one’s ability) to recognize reality as it actually exists on its own terms, and to acknowledge and respect the God-given (and, hence, inviolable) dignity of every human being.”[5] 

            The traditional wisdom of our forebears is generally reliable, which is why it has endured.[6]  If they correctly perceived and expressed the truth of an issue, we will only be able to agree with them, and any changes we make to their findings would not be progress, but a perversion of the truth.  Clarifications, refinements to fit new developments, and other marginal improvements are frequently possible; but by its very nature, the truth of first principles endures, it does not evolve into “new truths.”

            Jefferson famously opined that “The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”[7]  “Good government” is not immoral or amoral.  Good government is moral.  Under the objective worldview, the good that government is designed to do is premised on absolute and objective truths, not subjective and relative feelings or situations.  That is ultimately what we must mean when we affirm that we are a government of laws, not of men.[8]

One of the fundamental roles of a moral government is, as Jefferson and most other respected thinkers have noted, to protect human life.[9]  Although it must also protect liberty, the interest in life is plainly superior.  Life without liberty at least holds the potential for renewed liberty and other goods, but liberty without life is a nullity.  No one has the “liberty right” to unnaturally terminate another human life because it is wrong to do so.  What is wrong cannot be a right.[10]  It is not surprising, therefore, that Michigan law prohibits partial-birth abortions and killing live human embryos for research – reflecting such divine or natural law traditions. Likewise, applying this same standard, it ought to be unlawful for a physician to deliberately and intentionally decapitate the head of a living unborn child.

            Western cultures based their ethical and legal systems on the Judeo-Christian tradition.[11] This tradition teaches that taking human life is fundamentally wrong.[12]  In this regard, God reveals in his Word that the life He creates has worth, value, and significance; He declares his creation of human life good and intimately communicates that He has a plan and purpose for each life He creates.[13]  Because God creates human life, only He can authorize the taking of it – and nowhere in His Word does He authorize killing human life at any stage for research purposes.  God’s inviolable standard is expressed in His command, “Thou Shalt Not kill.”[14] 

            Thus, viewed through the lens of the first worldview, one discovers divinely revealed objective standards on the value of human life.  In the revealed is the inviolable objective standard that intentionally decapitating the head of a living unborn child is always wrong.  Underlying this inviolable standard is a presumption that human life has value and purpose at all stages.  In formulating and determining propriety of laws on live human embryos, lawmakers may look to the objective standard as the benchmark, reflecting it in the law.  Such a standard is consistent with God’s revealed inviolable standard reflected in the current Michigan partial-birth abortion ban, and other historical and legal traditions of our nation.[15]

B. The Subjective Worldview Lens: Rejecting the Inviolable Standard for Moral Relativism

            Contrary to the foundational worldview of our nation, the subjectivist worldview cuts us off from the realm of an absolute reality.[16]  It has no place for God—or, rather, it puts man in God’s place.[17]  There is no objective truth; the human subject is the source of all rights and laws, all concepts of truth and justice.[18]  This view obviously cannot compare human laws to absolute standards of truth or justice, because each individual decides for him or herself what is true, good, just, etc, based on the individual’s power of reason.  Thus, terms such as “truth” or “justice” merely represent subjective, relativistic viewpoints and not absolute standards.  We do not “know” truth or good so much as make it up as we go. The absurd result of this theory, of course, is that one who holds it cannot actually claim it is true or good.[19]  It may be “true” or “good” in the relativist sense for the speaker, but need not be for the listener, which is no meaningful truth at all.

            The proposed Michigan law expressly makes it unlawful for a physician to deliberately and intentionally decapitate the head of a living unborn child.[20]  Opponents of this proposal fight ferociously for the legal right to dismember the unborn child in such a brutal way. Why do these opponents fight so hard for something so inconsistent with the deeply rooted first principles reflected in our legal history and tradition? How could such a notion emerge?  The answer lies in the lens through which they view the world.  Supporters of dismemberment abortions reject the moral absolute of the inviolable standard in favor of their subjective, morally-relative worldview.  Viewed through the subjective lens of moral relativism, individuals can determine, as a matter of economic or scientific convenience, whether a particular human life has value in certain circumstances, and, without looking to any standard of right or wrong, create law accordingly.

            Thus, when deciding whether to legally authorize a physician to decapitate an unborn child’s head,  “we the people” face a choice between two jurisprudential views of the world.[21]  On the one hand, we may look to the objective standard revealed in divine or natural law as the benchmark – and promulgate provisions reflecting that standard.  Alternatively, we may, using subjective moral relativism, create law without looking to any objective standard of right or wrong – and promulgate provisions of economic and scientific convenience where the determination of whether human life has value varies with the particular person and circumstances.

The Grave Implications of Devaluing Human Life and Rejecting the Objective Standard

            The question becomes, therefore, which worldview should prevail?  Should Michigan lawmakers view the issue through the lens of the objective traditional worldview – and continue to reflect the inviolable standard?  Or, should they view the issue through the lens of subjective moral relativism – and continue to allow the killing of live unborn children via decapitation without regard to the standard.  As the public debate heats up, it makes sense to review the implications for a nation that accompany such a shift in worldview.  What are the implications of viewing the world through the lens of moral relativism?

            Let me begin with what should be an obvious point.  The killing of human life at the unborn stage proceeds from the fundamentally erroneous premise that human life in certain conditions no longer has inherent value or purpose.  That premise has incalculably grave implications for all of us.  When the value of life becomes an immorally relative individual choice, no benchmark exists against which to measure right from wrong or good from evil.  If no standard exists, nothing prevents taking human life in other ways, for other people, in other situations.  History suggests that such an approach has horrific consequences.  Once “liberated” from objective moral standards by subjectivist relativism, the individual is completely subject to the will of any stronger individual or group; for no moral standard exists to prevent the imposition of that stronger subject’s “morality.”  Thus, instead of leading to the freedom it promises (from the alleged ‘oppression of tradition’), the moral relativist view opens the door wide to tyranny.[22] 

            Indeed, what we sow, we reap.  Society continues, as Judge Robert Bork observes, to slouch toward Gomorrah – and at an increasingly faster pace as it replaces God’s inviolable moral standard with an immorally-relative economic or scientific convenience.[23] 

            Michigan’s proposed dismemberment abortion prohibition upholds the underlying inviolable standard that serves as the foundation of current Michigan law.  The grave implications for a nation that accompany the alternate choice are historically clear and profoundly frightening. 

            The conscience of a nation is a fabric made up of much more than statutes and court decisions.  Those who came before us built a constitutional democratic republic upon fundamental foundations of decency.  That foundation is chipped away with each attempt to shift the predominant paradigm from the traditional objective worldview to the morally relative subjective one.  More than just viewing the taking of human life through the lens of moral relativism, such a worldview shift subtly seeks to transform our pluralistic nation (where everyone may freely participate in public policy development) into a secular nation (where everyone except those with sacred viewpoints may do so).  Americans, for the time being, are free to view dismemberment abortion through either lens.  We live in a country whose constitution expressly protects freedom of speech and the free exercise of religious conscience.  If these fundamental freedoms mean anything, they at least must protect the right to manifest what one sees through these lenses – especially since the constitution also expressly assures the freedom to petition the government for redress.[24]  In this regard, Americans with sacred viewpoints have as much right to participate in the public policy process as any other citizen.  

            Decapitating an unborn child’s head abandons the moral absolute and follows a morally relative approach.  The serious implications of such a worldview shift ought to sober, and then persuasively inform, the public debate.  While state laws grounded in the objective traditional worldview hold the potential to help restore and preserve the intrinsic value of human life, public policy ultimately depends on the will of a morally motivated citizenry and their representatives.  If, in the name of an economic or scientific progress, we fail to condemn state authorized killing of a human life, we merely create an illusion of a nation willing to protect fundamental freedoms. Such a course inevitably erodes essential foundations of our country. Although structural institutions of free government may stand for a time, the essence for which they stand eventually ceases to exist. 

            Foundations do matter.  Dismemberment abortions allow for the taking of human life.  These provisions grieve millions who know God made us in His image, and that therefore life is sacred.  It is well for us to recall, therefore, the ancient Biblical truth that “righteousness exalts a nation,”[25] for the opposite is equally true.  In the end, viewing the issue through the lens of moral relativism destroys the sanctity of life because it denies the only one who can truly sanctify.  Only the Creator can rightfully destroy either life or liberty.  As the Declaration attests, He gave us both, and only He can rightfully separate us from them, or permit us to do so.[26]  In the case of human life at the embryo stage, He nowhere provides an exception to the inviolable objective standard expressed in His command, “Thou Shalt Not kill.”[27]   

            For the reasons expressed, Christian people ought to support Michigan’s proposed ban on dismemberment abortions.

[1] See Daniel M. Crone, Assisted Suicide and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: A Philosophical Examination of the Majority Opinion in Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 31 U.S.F. L. Rev. 399, 422 (1997); see also Michael W. McConnell The Right to Die and the Jurisprudence of Tradition, 1997 Utah L. Rev. 665 (1997).

[2] See, e.g., Charles E. Rice, Rights and the Need for Objective Moral Limits, 3 Ave Maria L. Rev. 259, 260 (2005).

[3] Id.

[4] See Crone, supra note 1, at 422.

[5] Id. at 426.

[6] Reviewing our culture’s historical treatment of moral or ethical questions does not, in itself, produce correct answers to those questions.  It does, however, provide insights that may help us arrive at the answers.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Address to Citizens of Washington County, Maryland, Assembled at Hagerstown on the 6th Instant, Monticello (March 31, 1809), in Lipscomb & Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 359 (1905).

[8] See, e.g., Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 131, 163, 1803 WL 893 (1803) (quoting J. Adams, Massachusetts Constitution, Part the First, art. XXX (1780)).  This principle, which John Adams embedded in the Massachusetts constitution in the context of establishing a separation of governmental powers, has been invoked by the Supreme Court and many others in a variety of contexts.

[9] Accord Duncan & Lubin, The Use and Abuse of History in Compassion in Dying, 20 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 175, 177 (1996) (quoting Cruzan v. Dir., Mo. Dep’t Health, 497 U.S. 261, 280 (1990) (“‘[A]ll civilized nations . . . demonstrate their commitment to life by treating homicide as a serious crime’” and “‘the majority of states in this country have laws imposing criminal penalties on one who assists another to commit suicide.’”)).

[10] Although this proposition is self-validating, Hadley Arkes provides a typically illuminating discussion of the matter in First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice 24 (Princeton Univ. Press 1986).

[11] Duncan & Lubin, supra note 9, at 185.

[12] See, e.g., Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17 (King James).

[13] See Genesis 1:26, 27 (NIV) (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”); Genesis 1:31 (NIV) (“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”); Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD…); Ephesians 2:10 (NIV) (“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”); see also Genesis 9:6 (indicating that humans are not to be killed because “in the image of God has God made man”); Psalm 139:13, 16 (NIV) (“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. . . . [Y]our eyes saw my unformed body.  All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”); Colossians 1:16 (NIV) (“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”); Isaiah 43:7 (NIV) (“Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory. It was I who created them.”); Acts 17:24, 26 (NIV) (“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth . . . . From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them . . . .”); Acts 20:24 (NIV) (Paul’s statement, just prior to facing humanly unbearable adversity: “[I]f only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”).

[14] Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17 (King James).

[15] We, for example, as a nation have long honored the Hippocratic Oath.  Its creation in ancient Greek culture has been foundational in Western medical ethics, and it remains centrally relevant in contemporary medical practice.  See, e.g., C. Everett Koop, Introduction, 35 Duq. L. Rev. 1 (1996); accord AMA Code of Ethics, sec 2.211 (prohibiting physician assistance in assisted suicide or euthanasia).

[16] The holders of this view may object to a discussion of God in the affairs of government or law because such discussion supposedly reflects a prejudicial ideology.  In other words they believe the existence of God is irrelevant to good government (and good jurisprudence).  They cannot seriously deny, however, that to say God is irrelevant is to express that prejudicial ideology.  See, e.g., Crone, supra note 11, at 399 (quoting Stanley Jaki, Evicting the Creator, in The Only Chaos and Other Essays 152, 158 (1990) (“Ideologies … are avoidable only if one says nothing.”)).  Saying God is irrelevant is hardly “neutral.”  It is merely another subjective view that, under the subjectivist’s own rules, we are free to ignore as “untrue for us,” since there is no objective truth. 

[17] Crone, supra note 4, at 408-10.

[18] Id.

[19] See, e.g., Rice, supra note 2, at 267-68.

[20] House Bill 4320; Senate Bill 0229

[21] See Crone, supra note 1, at 422; see also McConnell, supra note 1.

[22] Id. at 403, 408; Rice, supra note 2, at 270-71, 274.  That it may be a tyranny of the majority is no comfort, for today’s majority may become tomorrow’s minority. See H. Arkes, Natural Rights & the Right to Chose 31 (2002).

[23] See Robert H. Bork, Slouching  Toward Gomorrah 173-92 (1996).

[24] U.S. Const. amend. 1.

[25] Proverbs 14:34.

[26]  See Crone, supra note 1, at 430 (“Just as human rights exist only because of a person’s relation to God, the only justifiable prohibition against self-murder exists solely because of his or her relation to God as the Creator and Master of life.”).

[27] Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17 (King James).

About the Author

Prof. William Wagner
WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom at SAU
Professor Wagner holds the WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom at Spring Arbor University. He has a special interest in building and preserving environments where Christians may share the Good News of Jesus, free from persecution and oppression.

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