Government and the Protection of Human Life

An Essay by Professor William Wagner

One of the fundamental functions of a civilized nation’s government is to protect human life.  Although it must also protect liberty, the interest in life is plainly superior.  Life without liberty at least holds the potential for renewed liberty, but liberty without life is a nullity.  Thus, in civilized nations, no one has the “liberty right” to torture or terminate innocent human life because it is wrong to do so.  What is wrong cannot be a right.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the rule of law in Western cultures often regulated against killing unborn and partially born babies. Reflecting divine and natural law principles, Western cultures base their ethical and legal systems primarily on Judeo-Christian traditions. These traditions teach that taking human life is fundamentally wrong. In formulating the law on unborn and partially born live human babies, lawmakers may look to this inviolable standard as the benchmark, reflecting it in the law.  Thus, consistent with historical and legal traditions, the positive law of Western nations reflects God’s revealed inviolable standard.

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.

Because God creates human life, only He can authorize the taking of it – and nowhere in His Word does He authorize killing, for example of unborn or partially born human life.  God’s inviolable standard is expressed in His command, “Thou Shalt Not kill.” Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy5:17 (King James). Thus, viewed through the lens of a sacred worldview, one discovers divinely revealed objective standards on the value of human life.  In the revealed is the inviolable objective standard that killing viable and partially born human life for personal convenience purposes is always wrong. Underlying this inviolable standard is a presumption that human life has value and purpose at all stages.

That truth said, one need not rely solely on the sanctity of life, although surely such a compelling argument suffices. Christians may also appeal to reason and the rational responsibility of a civilized nation: petitioning that sentient beings of our own species be shielded from intentionally inflicted, slow, agonizing, involuntary death.

On the other end of life, many laws also traditionally prohibit assisting in suicide killings.  These laws again reflect an objective moral standard present in Western Culture’s divine, natural, and common-law traditions. Pro-suicide proposals and court decisions, on the other hand, divorce and discard any moral reference point in the law and replace it with a human-centred, morally-relative approach to lawmaking.

When formulating law concerning suicide killing, these two jurisprudential worldviews collide. Nations face a choice. On the one hand, they may look to the objective moral standard revealed in divine or natural law as the benchmark and promulgate provisions reflecting that standard.  Alternatively, they may use subjective, morally-relative legal positivism to create law apart from any objective moral standard of right or wrong.