Human life is sacred because from its beginning
it involves the creative action of God.
– Catechism of the Catholic Church
All people have a right to life, safety, and the free development of
personality insofar as they do not injure the rights of others.
– Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, The Parliament of the World’s Religions
Prior to a trip to Kenya in June 2010, I had decided that it was time to begin to consider in my reflections on this blog the topic of sexual ethics. I boarded the plane for my trip prepared to begin to draft my next post on this topic. This desire, in part, was prompted by the recent news reports in the U.S. on a controversy regarding an abortion performed at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, a procedure which doctors said was necessary to save the life of the mother. Sister Margaret McBride, who served on the hospital ethics board which approved the abortion, was declared excommunicated by her bishop.
Ironically, while I was in Kenya, my colleagues spent a good deal of time talking about the controversy unfolding in their country over the approval of a new constitution. Many hope the adoption by the public of the new constitution by a country-wide vote in August will put an end to the division and ethnic violence of recent years. However, a provision in the draft regarding abortion has church authorities joining together to promote opposition to the new constitution based on this single factor. As one of my colleagues said, the rallying cry on the part of many church officials has become, “If you are for Life, vote ‘no.'” It is possible that this single issue could derail all the hard work and promise of the new constitution.
Hearing this news, I became disheartened and at the same time even more motivated to begin to explore how we might, through the lens of the new Universe Story, begin to reframe our understanding of “Life,” our approach to human sexuality, and our stance on the ethical dilemma of abortion. I do not support random and reckless killing of any kind. I do want to understand more fully the complexity of this issue. Personally, I lean toward believing the solution to the issue lies far more with understanding and coming to grips with the circumstances surrounding the “unwanted” child before we can ever come to grips with how to deal with the potential for an “aborted” child. I find that the new Universe Story often helps us to stretch our perspective in ways that can pull us out of limited ways of considering difficult issues.
It may take several posts on this blog to make our way through the intricate web of issues around the ethics of human sexuality. Today, I want to begin by considering what we mean by “Life,” and how that meaning within the Universe Story might help us to consider our responsibility as humans to make decisions that promote Life, not only for individuals, but also for the entire Earth community.
How, then, might we employ the new Universe Story to begin to truly broaden our thinking around sexual ethics, specifically today around the meaning of Life and the promotion of mature, responsible decisions in regard to the introduction of new Life on our planet?
Let us begin with a look at the definition of “Life.” Historically, the religious traditions have promoted the value of Life. Yet, these traditions seem to be lacking in terms of a definition of Life, simply assuming it is “sacred,” in some instances by virtue of its association with a “Divine” source. The Declaration Toward a Global Ethic drafted by leaders of a number of religious traditions in 1993 at the second Parliament of the World’s Religions speaks eloquently to the need to respect, preserve and promote “Life,” but it does not define it.
On the other hand, a definition of Life coming from contemporary science is reported by Elisabet Sahtouris, in her book, Gaia:The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. Commenting on the significance of the Universe Story for considering our approach to Life, she writes: “It seems that as we learn more about our universe, we need to change our scope and the questions we ask about life” (p. 41). She later goes on to present the challenge of our time:
Our biggest job is to change our whole way of thinking to a larger perspective, to recognize ourselves as a body of humanity embedded in, and with much to learn from, our living parent planet, which is all we have to sustain us. (p. 204)
Taking this broadest of all perspectives, Sahtouris draws on the insights of contemporary biologists to present a definition of life as autopoiesis (pronounced auto-po-EE-sis), which in Greek means “self-production.” The term was coined by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who suggest that an autopoietic unity, or holon, produces the very parts of which it is made and keeps them in working order by constant renewal (p. 40).
Sahtouris goes on to reflect on the cosmic experience of life and the reality within our Universe of the failure of life to thrive.
We do not know whether in our own solar system planets such as Mars and Venus began coming to life and then failed to evolve because they could not keep themselves alive. It is ever clearer that, as with the seeds and eggs of plants and animals, far more planets are produced than actually come to life (p. 41).
The question of Life, then, as Sahtouris suggests, is much larger than a simply human concern. For me, this broad view raises a number of questions around the ethic of Life, as well as human intercourse and reproduction. For example, how might, as Sahtouris suggests, we see ourselves as sexual humans acting in harmony with the dynamics present in our Universe? How would we view the very basic dynamics of life and death? Would we, seeing ourselves from a galactic perspective, come to accept and value not just “life” but also “death” as a natural part of the dynamics of our Universe? Would such a view temper the harshness of our approach to decisions to choose death in order to preserve life, as in the Phoenix abortion case?
In the last few days, I was with a friend who is grieving the recent sudden death of a beloved daughter. As I listened, she told the story of her grief to a mutual friend. At one point, this listening friend described death as “the enemy.” The perspective puzzled me then, and does so even more as I consider Sahtouris’ suggestion that “death” arrives at that point when it is no longer possible for an organism to keep itself alive on its own. No “enemy” here; just the natural processes inherent in our Universe at work.
Would a further implication of the autopoietic view of life mean that plants, animals, and even humans might not be considered truly “alive” until they reach the point of being able to sustain themselves? Up until that point, they might be viewed as carrying the potential for life, but are they really alive? Considering this question certainly could make a dramatic difference in our perspective on the abortion issue.
Having now raised these questions, I can only say that I suspect it will take us a long time to sort these questions through to a reasonable conclusion. By then, we may be in an altogether different situation, with new scientific data to consider. In the meantime, I suggest we refrain from leaping too quickly to traditional approaches. There is just too much in the way of new science and new perspectives to consider.
Sahtouris, E. (1989). Gaia: The human journey from chaos to cosmos. New York, NY: Pocket Books.