The ambiguity of “pro-life”

I always sense some ambiguity when people declare themselves “pro-life”.

Typically these people claim to be against abortion and euthanasia (for example) because they value life above everything else. But there is always at least a second way of being “pro-life”, which has nothing to do with valuing life per-se: it is the perspective that views euthanasia and abortion as bad because they end life proactively and artificially. According to this variant of “pro-life”, the problem is going against the natural (or sacred) order of things, not ending life itself.

I sense this ambiguity especially in religious groups that are “pro-life”. Historically life on this planet was never the priority of organised religions, that are all about – almost by definition – things that transcend the material world. Life, in many religious framings, is not sacred for its own sake, but because God gave it to us.

In other words, maybe some pro-life groups are not really “pro-life”, they are simply “pro-natural-order-of-things-as-designed-by-God” (let me call them PNOTDG, to distinguish them from “genuine” pro-life) – which in practice, when it comes to bioethics, makes them behave in a way that looks (and make many believers think of themselves as) “pro-life”.

Why does this matter? Why should we care what the fundamental motivation is, if in practice the two stances are indistinguishable?

We should care for a simple but important fact. “Pro-life” and “PNOTDG” look almost indistinguishable today, but they won’t in the future. The fact that they do today is almost an accident of history. We happen to live at a time when the tools of modern medicine can easily and painlessly terminate a life, but they are not (yet) able to indefinitely extend a life that has reached its biological end (aka ageing). Because of this asymmetry, “PNOTDG” and “pro-life” believers end up on the same side: both groups think we should prevent modern medicine from harming life.

But this asymmetry is only temporary. It will come a time (decades? centuries?) when our knowledge of the human body will be powerful enough to delay ageing more and more. It may come a time when we find a way of getting rid of ageing altogether.

When that time will come, the alliance between “PNOTDG” and “pro-life” believers will break. Their logical contradiction will come out. Those who genuinely value life will greet that new future era as a triumph of progress; those who value the “sacred order of things” will instead reject the end of ageing as a blasphemous (or unnatural) attempt to replace God (or Nature). And those who hadn’t really realised there were in fact two ways of being “pro-life” will have to work out what way they are and act accordingly.

What intrigues me is a possible scenario. In a world where anti-ageing treatments are available and effective, maybe there will be former “pro-life” leaders who will begin preaching the moral virtue of letting yourself age and die. It would be fun to be still around to watch.

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