Jan. 21, the date that President George W. Bush chose for his fellow Americans to honour the sanctity of human life, is significant for two reasons. First, it falls on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Secondly, it is one day prior to the 34th anniversary of the infamous Roe v Wade decision that drove a sword into the nation’s commitment to the sanctity of human life, leaving a wound that has remained open and crying out to be healed for more than three decades.
Critics will complain that the presidential proclamation is religion-based and violates the separation of church and state principle. Yet, as the president makes clear in the first sentence of the text, it is historically and essentially American: “America was founded on the principle that we are all endowed by our Creator with the right to life and that every individual has dignity and worth.” The Founding Fathers did not separate politics from religion to the extent that they denied man is blessed by his Creator with a special dignity.
“National Sanctity of Life Day,” as the president went on to state, “serves as a reminder that we must value human life in all forms, not just those considered healthy, wanted, or convenient. Together, we can work toward a day when the dignity and humanity of every person is respected.”
These words echo what other American political figures have already stated. Consider those of former U.S. vice-president Hubert Horatio Humphrey who, in 1976, three years after Roe v Wade, said: “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” “The message of the United States,” he went on to declare, the following year, “is a spiritual message. It is the message of human ideals; it is the message of human dignity.”
What has happened to America that has moved her to the point where she needs to be reminded of something so basic as the sanctity of life and human dignity? It has been the ascendancy of a “quality of life” ethic that has eclipsed that of the “sanctity of life.” One of the most influential proponents of the former view is Peter Singer, who cavalierly dismisses notions such as “sanctity of life” and “dignity” as “fine phrases (that) are the last resource of those who have run out of argument.”
Singer and his ilk, however, provide us with a conundrum: how is it possible that material possessions, mental and physical health and social status, can he deemed as good “qualities,” yet the beneficiaries of these qualities, the human being himself, is judged devoid of any innate good quality? How can the things a person can have be of greater value than what he is as a human being? As the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Things are in the saddle riding man.” We have foolishly emptied ourselves of value and projected value onto externals. “I am not interested in the necessities of life,” Oscar Wilde ironically stated. “Give me the luxuries.”
President Bush is calling the American people to reflect on priorities: the value of human life, its inherent sanctity, is prior in importance to the things that may be added to it. Being precedes having; dignity cannot be undone; sanctity is inviolate.
On Aug. 12, 1993, to a World Youth Day audience in Denver, Colo., Pope John Paul II also reminded America of its great tradition and profound obligation to respect the rights of all human being: “America has a strong tradition of respect for the individual, for human dignity and human rights … The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and the most defenceless … America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person.” Even here, the Supreme Pontiff was reiterating what he told America in Detroit on Sept. 19, 1987.
America needs to be reminded of what it would impoverish it to forget; namely, that all human beings possess the right to life and that no person holds dominion over any other person. If this principle is forgotten, equality, justice and peace are unlikely.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.