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Pro-Life, or Afraid of Death?

February 7, 2012

Etymologically, “pro-life” is an immensely positive, not to mention versatile, term, and probably describes us all in some fashion. Taken as a broadly guiding moral principle, akin to “love all”, it has enormous potential.

On the other hand, the emotionally charged and politically affiliated connotation it has picked up is something of an oddity. What does it mean, in practice, to be “pro-life”? To me it seems to mean that one holds the tissues comprising the systems most directly involved in the human reproductive process be sacrosanct. In particular, the genitals and sexual organs are objects of awe, reverence, and fear, and germ cells in vitro, which include the following, are held to be hallowed ground:

– sperm cells from approximately their time of entry into the cervix after ejaculation
– egg cells at all times before and after fertilization, as well as possibly the germ cells in the testes
– fetuses from conception to delivery

One could easily extend this set of premises to the overarching conclusion that all of life is sacred, but in practice it comes with two severe restrictions:

1) it applies only to humans,
2) as long as they are not guilty of wrongdoing.

Examined closely, this is a philosophy that sanctifies the period of human life between conception and birth, inclusive of the endpoints. Why the fixation on this part of the life cycle? The rationale often given is that humans during this period are “innocent”, presumably more innocent than humans in other periods of the life cycle (which often exists curiously alongside the philosophical doctrine of original sin). I speculate, however, that the real psychological motivation comes from the perception that this is a person who ‘almost’ got a chance at life but didn’t quite make it, whereas once you’re out of the womb you’ve at least had your fair capitalist chance to thrive. This in turn seems to be rooted in the perception not that life is sacred, but that non-life, the hellish abyss of nonexistence from which those poor unborn souls almost escaped, is horrifying, i.e. the fear of death.

This speculation at least has some basis in possibility, since the fear of death is heavily engendered traditionally within the philosophical affiliations that currently tout the pro-life ethic, largely numerous Catholic and Protestant sects of Christianity. It’s not to be taken for granted, however, since it could just as easily be speculated that the impulse arises alongside with, or even out of, the reproductive imperatives also engendered within these traditions.

But let’s run with it at least long enough to call the fear of death itself into question, since it is a taboo that has permeated our secular culture at large. Is it such a good thing? Is it really necessary? Is it even natural? It seems to me that awe, wonder, reverence, humor, compassion, and a host of other positive emotions, as well as welcome relief from suffering or even plain indifference, are just as easily within the realm of possible human responses to mortality as fear. For example, the time of my grandfather’s death is catalogued in my mind as a happy memory, touched as I was by his own good natured, even humorous acceptance, as much as by the loving compassion displayed by my whole family.

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