Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Life matters

Lord Sumption is a former member of the British Supreme Court, who received criticism recently over his remarks about the value of human life.


Steve Latham


He has expressed the opinion that a woman with stage 4 cancer has a life “less valuable” than others, who might benefit from the cost of medical treatment during the Coronavirus pandemic.

He has also said that children’s and young people’s lives were “worth more” than older people’s, because they had more life to live ahead of them. Critics waded in, to assert that all lives are worth the same, that there is no hierarchy of value, based on state of health or age.

In a slightly contradictory stance, Lord Sumption has also previously courted controversy, in opposing any relaxation of the law against assisted suicide, or mercy killing.

His position seems to be that there exist moral dilemmas, which cannot be settled by the blunt instrument of the law.

And certainly, with Covid, there are situations where hard-pressed medical staff are having to make difficult decisions about triage, and which patients to prioritise for treatment.

But the dispute around Lord Sumption does open up debate about the value of human life, and how far we would go to protect it.

It also raises the matter of when, or whether, to end it; or at least fail to preserve it. And, as medical science advances, while accompanied by shortage of resources, this quandary will occur more often.

The problem is what criteria to use for any selective treatment of patients, which does not fall into the moral quagmire of Nazi-style death camps.

It raises also the matter of the “right to life”, ethical language which has been colonised by the Religious Right.

Feminist philosopher Judith Butler, for example, wrote about the “grievable life”, but studiously avoided attributing this quality to the unborn foetus.

But on what grounds? Surely, at least some women “grieve” their unborn child, even if figures of post-abortion depression are exaggerated?

Where the Right has utilised “pro-life” rhetoric, however, they are frequently blind to other “life” issues.

For instance, the new US Supreme Court member, Amy Coney Barrett, while conservative on abortion, is also against gun controls, which might prima facie seem to be another “pro-life” matter.

“Pro-Life” is not defined to include problems like: poverty and cuts to international aid, Covid vaccines hoarded by rich countries, or weapons sales to dictatorships.

The Left, on the other hand, while alive to these injustices, do not extend their concern to the life of the unborn.

Recent celebrations at the legalisation of abortion in Argentina saddened me. Even if judged necessary, should this not have elicited lament rather than laughter?

Our moral compass has gone awry. We need a way of thinking about “life” issues, which transcends the Left-Right divide.

Cardinal Bernardin, former Archbishop of Chicago, advocated a “consistent life ethic”, which included abortion, genetics, capital punishment, euthanasia, and nuclear weapons.

Maybe a way towards a moral and political renewal lies along this “pro-life” path?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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