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The Value of Life

One thing we have always valued as a nation is upholding virtue.

Written by Sara Grundvig.

The Russian novel Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky is one of the best explorations of the importance of valuing human life. Although fictional, Raskolnikov’s struggle embodies the conflict occurring in America today. For him, the question was whether the life of an old, unloved woman had value. For us, the question is whether the lives of the innocent, voiceless, unborn of this nation have value. In this conflict, there is no possible answer that remains neutral; Government policy must make a value judgement. In order to fulfill its role, the government must uphold the public good by erring on the side of protecting the sanctity of human life.

Today people want a neutral solution to this conflict that doesn’t involve moral judgements. That neutral solution often follows the argument of individual choice. However, Harvard professor Michael Sandel argues that this solution based on freedom of choice is not good enough to resolve this debate. The fact is that this conflict requires a value judgement about the worth of a life because if the fetus is indeed equivalent to a child, few would argue that parents should have the right to choose to kill their children. Sandel argues that “justice is inescapably judgmental.” In this conflict, there is no way to avoid making a judgement call about what we as a society value.

One thing we have always valued as a nation is upholding virtue. John Adams once said that “the only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue.” If we take that quote seriously, then the basis of our free society rests on the virtue of the people. Many argue that abortion is acceptable up to the point at which the fetus is viable outside of the mother’s womb. However, this point of viability is always changing as science improves. Do we really want science determining when an abortion is morally acceptable? It seems dangerous to hold morality hostage to scientific achievements.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (New York, N.Y.: Gilberton, 1951; 26 cm. Classics illustrated; no. 89.)

Another one of our values has always been protecting those who need protection. As the right to life erodes, all the weak become more vulnerable. The unborn themselves are weak because they don’t have a voice. Babies are not the only weak group, however. The elderly, the disabled, even minorities are weaker groups of society. Their strength lies in the morality of the majority: the belief that all lives are important, no matter from what group they come. When this belief begins to erode, the strong will be okay, but the weak may not be. In the United States, this mentality has resulted in the death of millions.

Returning to the story of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov decides that the life of the unloved woman holds no value and he chooses to murder her. For the rest of the novel, he is overcome with guilt. He comes to see that even the lowest members of society, even prostitutes, thieves, and murderers like himself have value. Every person has worth, regardless of who they are or what they have done. If Raskolnikov can see this truth in murderers and prostitutes, why are we so blind to the worth of the most innocent among us?

We don’t have all the answers to the questions of when life begins, when a fetus can feel pain, or what it really means to be a human being. The fact is that it is always the safest option to err on the side of protecting life. As a society, we must decide what we value most, which will determine who we want to be. There is no way to remain neutral on this issue. We either value life, or we don’t. John Winthrop described us over 300 years ago as a “city upon a hill” and said that “the eyes of all people are upon us.” The eyes of all people, including future generations. What do we want them to see when they look back at us? I hope they don’t see a nation morally corrupt, covered in the blood of the innocent and the voiceless.

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