When I was a kid and had to memorize the Ten Commandments, number 6 (Protestant version) of the Decalogue stated, in absolute, albeit archaic, English: "Thou shalt not kill."
No one bothered to ask what, exactly, should not be killed. Certainly we didn't worry about killing insects or rodents; most of my classmates lived on farms and routinely helped slaughter livestock. All of us enjoyed the (well-cooked) flesh of domestic animals.
And no one questioned the moral legitimacy of killing other humans in cases of self-defense, in judgments involving "capital" crimes, in wars against national enemies.
Abortion was never mentioned, not even in whispers. Remember: those were the times when the word "pregnant" was banned from our black and white TVs. Lucille Ball was "expecting"--and, until rather late in the "I Love Lucy" series, I think, she and Ricky slept in separate twin beds.
Presumably, then, since it was so damned hard to MAKE a fetus, no one wanted to think about destroying it.
But I have digressed a bit. My central thought is one to which I frequently return: the assertion of many of my friends--people whom I love--that "life is sacred." I understand what they mean: they mean human life is sacred. And they base this belief upon that Commandment I cited earlier.
Furthermore, they (unlike the Lucy and Ricky watchers) are, quite specifically, thinking about human fetuses. When they say "Life is sacred", they actually mean "Thou shalt not kill human fetuses."
Their interpretation of the moral imperative is absolute in this case. Yet it is NOT absolute in the other cases I mentioned above (self-defense, capital punishment, war). Why not?
Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a great fan of biblical literalism--or indeed, of the Bible itself as anything more than an anthology of mythology (valiant attempts to explain the unexplainable) and spiritual reflections / exercises. So I do not feel intellectually or morally compelled to accept as binding the strictures of Exodus 20 or Exodus 34 or Deuteronomy 5. Still, since so many people DO base their attitudes on these chapters, it might be worthwhile to explore what the ancient writers actually intended when they wrote the Sixth (or the Fifth) Commandment.
Christian conservatives, of course, insist that Yahweh (shrouded by more smoke than the Wizard of Oz in his command booth) actually hand-delivered the Commandments to Moses sometime around 1500 BCE (The New Living Bible says 1445 BCE exactly). Most serious biblical scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Commandments were first codified in the 8th Century BCE (between 950 and 750 BCE)--and that they represent a kind of compilation of traditions from several sources (usually called J, E, and D). The "truth" of their origin can probably never be definitively proved. Never mind. What matters is what they meant.
There is, for instance, considerable discussion about the verb "to kill." Some contemporary translations of Commandment 5/6 prefer "murder" to "kill." "You shall not murder," says the New Revised Standard Version. And, in his book And God Said, Hebrew scholar, Joel Hoffmann, maintains that even "murder" is too vague a term. Hoffmann asserts that the original Hebrew means something like "to kill illegally."
In other words: "You shall not kill illegally."
Which would conveniently leave the door open for legal killing. Such as, perhaps, self-defense, capital punishment, warfare...and...and...abortion????
Goodness knows (I was going to write "God knows"), the Old Testament certainly authorizes plenty of legal killing (for offenses ranging from prostitution to masturbation (Onan) to proselytizing to worshiping false gods to premarital intercourse to communicating with the dead. And let us not forget "men lying with men."
Is it possible, then, that the Commandment is saying nothing more than this: "Don't kill anyone if your society and your society's lawmakers tell you it's illegal to do so"? Or, contrariwise, it's OK to kill other humans if such killing has been legalized by the authorities? I suspect that my Life is Sacred friends would have trouble with this interpretation also.
Still, that IS the way human culture works, isn't it? Throughout history, human beings have obligingly killed other human beings when authorized to do so by either rulers, laws or general consensus. Dang, this is a somewhat unsatisfying relativism, for me as well as for my friends. I wonder if we can build a system of ethics on something OTHER than these maddening (and self-contradictory) thou-shalt-nots. To be continued sometime...when my puzzler is less sore.