Holiday Inn Express, Belfast
Saturday 25th April, 1998, 3.00 p.m.

The sacredness of human life has always been part of the moral teaching of the great religious traditions of the world. It is coming under systematic questioning in our time. It is very important that we find the appropriate response through study, reflection, prayer and action.

There is a story told about the Buddha. One day a crazy man attacked the Buddha with a axe and was about the kill him. The Buddha put up his hand to stop him and said, “Listen, just a moment. Before you kill me I want you to take that axe and go over and cut a branch off that tree there”. So the attacker went off, and with a big strong swing, chopped the branch off the tree. Then he came back to the Buddha. “Now”, said the Buddha, “I want you to take that branch and put it back onto the tree”. The attacker looked at him. “What?”, he said, “you’re crazy. You know very well that I cannot do that”. “No”, said the Buddha, “it is not I who am crazy, it is you, for you are about to destroy something you cannot restore and something that you have not brought into being”. His attacker paused for a moment, then after a few moments walked away without saying anything.

Fullness of Life

We are all called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of our earthly existence. That fullness of life consists in sharing in the life of God. But the fact that we are called to eternal life reveals the greatness and the value of human life on earth, because life, here on earth, life in time, is the fundamental condition of the entire process of human existence. Life in time, life on earth is the initial stage of the whole process of our existence. Life in time here on earth is an integral part of that process.

All Life is Precious – Vegetative and Animal Life

As we drive around the roads at this time of year, despite all the bad weather, one cannot but be struck by the beauty of vegetative life. The furze is in wonderful bloom; the hedges are just beginning to show their marvelous signs of new life; shrubs and plants do likewise. Lawns and gardens are full of life. I think of the beauty of the lilies of fields and roses in rose gardens and how much joy they give to those who cultivate them and to those who admire them. I think of the goodness and nourishment provided by the crops and fruits and vegetables which our gracious and bountiful Mother Earth provides to nourish all other life – animal and human life.


Spring is a good time to talk of the value of life with so many signs of new life beginning to appear. It is a time when birds build nests. It is a time when farmyards resound to the sounds of lambs and calves and foals. Children marvel at the sight of kittens and puppies and chickens and ducklings and goslings. Recently on a visit to the American Folk Park in Omagh I was amazed at the fascination which the remarkable collection of live pedigree rabbits had for all of the visitors but especially for the children.

All life comes from God who is the source of life. The living God calls us to eternal life. Right from its beginning to the end, the Word of God presents a profound appreciation of life, in all its forms. It is a gift in which the mystery and generosity of God shine forth. The phrase ‘The Living God’ is used frequently in the Bible. It is an indication of how highly Scripture regards life.

Life is Precious

Life is something precious. Life appears at the last stage of creation. It is the crowning point of creation. “On the fifth day are born the sea monsters, living things that glide and move in the waters” the book of Genesis tells us. The Earth then brings forth further living creatures (Gen. 1:24). Finally, God created the most perfect living thing of all, in his own image, the human person.

Therefore even though life is a time of hard work, the book of Job tells us that, “People are ready to sacrifice everything to preserve life”. (Job. 2:4). To be in the land of the living and to die as Abraham did at a happy old age, advanced in years and filled with days is the ideal. (Job. 42:17). Parents intensely desire to have children as they are a source of joy and a sort of extension of their own lives. (Ps. 127).

Life is Fragile

People and other living creatures have a rather tenuous grip on life. Death is part of their nature. So life is short, like ‘wisps of smoke’ according to the Book of Wisdom (Wis. 2:2) – ‘shadow’ according to the Book of Psalms. (Ps. 144:4).

Life is Sacred

It is true that all life comes from God, yet the power of the human being to breathe comes from God in a very special way. To make man a living individual God breathed in his nostrils the breath of life, the book of Genesis tells us. (Gen. 2:7). It is the same breath which he withdraws at death, according to the book of Job. (Job. 34:14).

Nothing in our experience has quite the same value as human life. After an accident or a big fire the first question is: Has anyone been hurt? Anyone killed? The car, even the building can be replaced, but the human person cannot. Every human person is unique and irreplaceable.

Respect for life

Human life is sacred even before it is born. Sexuality and sexual life are sacred because they are the mysterious source of human life. These truths have been honoured by the great majority of people all through history, whatever their religion, whatever their culture.

From the moment that human life begins to exist at conception it is entitled to the same respect and protection as any other human life. Any action which sets out to destroy this life is morally wrong. The lives of both the child and the mother are sacred. The right to life of each of them is inviolable. Abortion is the direct taking of innocent life and no motive can justify it. No court judgement, no legislation can make it morally right. Abortion goes to the very well-spring of human life and touches the very foundations of morality.

The birth of a child brings delight and joy to parents, grandparents and everyone else connected with the family. The death of someone we love brings suffering and sadness. Life is precious in its coming to us and its going from us.

Indeed our own deepest feelings tell us that human life ranks above all other values. We are desperately attached to life, our own life, the life of those we love. Notice how we protect ourselves from accidents and disease. The thought of facing hospital or surgery, for ourselves or for our dear ones, frightens us. In the face of death, life becomes very precious.

Christians in particular have been unanimous and undivided in their absolute respect for unborn life and in their view of what reverence for the source of life implies. These values have begun to be questioned only in recent years; so it is important that we examine these matters again in the light of the Gospel and in the light of Christian and human conscience.

The Christian principle of respect for human life at every stage of its existence is firm and clear – God and God alone is the Lord of Life. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We come from God, we go to God, we belong to God. In the Psalms we read:

Know that the Lord is God!
It is He that made Us,
and we are His;
We are His people. (Ps. 99: 3)
Thou shalt not kill

God’s commandment, ‘thou shalt not kill’, unconditionally forbids all taking of innocent human life from its beginning in the womb until the end that God, not we, has set for it. We must have absolute respect for human life. It comes from God’s hands, from the very first moment of conception, and remains under God’s care on earth, until he takes it back to himself in death.

Is Every Life of Equal Value?

Some will say that not every life is of equal value. But in the eyes of God every life is of equal and priceless value. We must see every life as having the value which it has for God. Christ told us something about that when he said: “Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny yet, not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why every hair on your head has been counted. There is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows (Mt. 10:29-31).

Each human being is called to live with God forever. This is where we see the value of each human being. Sometimes people answer the question about what the person was, by stating the value of his/her assets or the amount of his annual earnings. The true answer is that every person is worth the life blood of Christ. There, and only there, is the true standard for judging the value of life

The Hippocratic Oath

The unwritten laws of the Creator can be seen by human reason and witnessed in God’s creation. They are engraved in the human heart. They are found in the human conscience and in the sense of personal responsibility. The ethics of the medical profession for example have found expression in the Hippocratic Oath.
Hippocrates was a little Greek who lived about 500 years before Christ. He traveled a lot and became the most famous Greek physician of ancient times. He became the embodiment of the ideal physician. By the terms of the Hippocratic Oath doctors solemnly swore:

“I shall never, no matter who may demand it, supply homicidal drugs. I shall never supply any woman with an abortive peccary. By chastity and sanctity I shall protect my life and my profession”.

The Geneva Medical Book, drawn up in 1948 by the World Health Organisation has a more modern form of the Hippocratic Oath and it says simply:

‘I shall keep absolute respect for human life from the moment of conception”.
Here we have the oldest and noblest tradition in the medical profession. That profession takes its stand for the sacred character, the absolute rights, of the unborn child. Here we are also at one with the deepest conviction of the human conscience.

Threats to Human Life

We live in an age marked by an extraordinary increase in the number of threats against the human life. Today those threats are very many and very serious. This is especially so where life is weak and defenseless. Poverty, hunger, diseases, violence in war, have always proved a threat to human life.

Thirty years ago the Second Vatican Council condemned very powerfully a number of crimes and attacks against human life. The passage, that is still relevant today, says: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person such as mutilation, torment inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as sub-human living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons all these things and others like them poison human society. They do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injuries. They are a supreme dishonour to the Creator”.

Unfortunately this disturbing state of affairs is expanding instead of decreasing. Scientific and technological progress have made possible new forms of attacks on the dignity of the human person. A new cultural climate is developing which gives crimes against life a new and even more sinister character. The reason is that broad sectors of public opinion try to justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom. On this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment by the law but even authorisation by the State. The result is that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health care systems. The result is that choices, once unanimously thought criminal and rejected by common moral sense, are gradually becoming socially acceptable. Some doctors, who by their calling are directed to the defence and care of human life, are increasingly willing to carry out these acts against the person.

The very nature of the medical profession is, in this way, being distorted and contradicted. The dignity of those who practice it is degraded. The end result is tragic. The destruction of so many human lives, which are still to be born or in their final stage, is extremely serious and disturbing. But the fact that conscience itself is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life is immensely disturbing.

Law and Society

Why does society exist? Why do we have laws? Society and the law exist to serve the human person.

They exist to protect the rights of the person, and to promote respect for the basic rights of all members of society. The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights. It is the foundation of all other rights. But who in society has the obligation to see that the basic rights of all members are protected? The obligation to see that basic rights of all members of society are respected falls on legislators, members of the judiciary and in the last analysis, on every citizen. But the primary duty falls on the Legislators and the Judges. Now a law which purports to authorise the direct and intentional killing of an innocent human being withdraws the protection to which every innocent life is entitled. Such a law denies the equality of everyone before the law. Such a law therefore contradicts the very purpose for which law exists. It is not a true morally binding law, but rather an act of violence and a corruption of law. So, keeping in mind that the obligation to protect the basic rights of all members of society, including the right to life, is one that falls on legislators, let us examine what actually is happening. First of all the promoters of liberal abortion for Ireland are trying to sow confusion and doubt. They know well that promoting abortion is not likely to draw support from the communities of Ireland. So what do they do? They claim that the present legal situation is unsatisfactory.

It is said that the present law is unclear or uncertain. Those arguing for clarification are in reality obscuring the situation in order to try to hide what they are doing. People opposing change in the law are pro-life campaigners in general. What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland? Northern Irish law protects unborn children. The statutes prohibit abortion establishing no exceptions other than acts to preserve the life of the mother. With reference to English Case Law, Northern Irish courts have allowed abortions in a few cases. This Case Law makes it clear that abortion on demand is not lawful in Northern Ireland.

Does the Law need Clarifying

What of the claim that the law needs clarifying. It is clear that the law gives substantial protection to unborn children while the British Abortion Act fails utterly to do so. The interpretation of preserving life to include a serious adverse effect on health may be controversial but that doesn’t mean that the law cannot readily be interpreted and enforced by the courts. The British Abortion Act is considerably harder to enforce. Is there cross-community support for legal protection of unborn children? Yes. People of Northern Ireland have, through every democratic means, expressed their overwhelming opposition to any liberalisation of their abortion legislation. In 1990, the then Health Minister, Virginia Bottomley said, “To the best of my knowledge no Northern Ireland member of parliament has ever called for changes in the Northern Ireland Abortion Act Laws”. Similarly all the soundings of opinion have made it very clear that there is no will in Northern Ireland for such a change. What of the women from Northern Ireland who go to England for abortions? Quite clearly people have the means to travel abroad to do things that are not legal in their own jurisdiction. This will always be the case as different jurisdictions have different laws
A law intended to permit the killing of the most vulnerable members of the human family is not justified by the fact that others already have such legislation. The experience of other countries is that unless abortion is entirely unrestricted it will result in some degree of what pro-abortionists call “exporting the problem”.

France has a very permissive policy on early abortion but restrictions on later abortion. The result is that many French women travel each year for abortions in England where later abortion is more readily available.

What can be done?

It can happen that a person acts under the pressure of panic or great fear or under the influence of psychological forces or under severe coercion and we may not blame them fully for their actions. Such considerations do not alter the fact that a person’s right to life has been fundamentally violated by the process of abortion.

A discussion of the value of life is incomplete if it doesn’t discuss the dilemma of a single or married women faced with an unplanned pregnancy and frequently under enormous pressure from every side to solve her dilemma by abortion. So as often as we speak of preventing abortion we must speak of our concern for the mother of the unborn child who is searching for understanding, acceptance and assistance.

In the United States some three thousand pro-life centres, staffed mostly by volunteers, have been established to provide every form of support needed to help women have their babies. The formation of such groups as Lutherans for Life, Methodists for Life, Presbyterians for Life and the Choose Life Society, a national Jewish pro-life organisation, demonstrates that abortion is not simply a Catholic or Evangelical religious issue. According to pollster, Louis Harris, 68% of all Americans think that it is against God’s will to destroy the life of an unborn baby, and 60% believe that a foetus should have rights just like all other human beings. So the simple answer to the question, why choose life in the face of an unwanted pregnancy is, because the child in the womb is a human being.

Doctor Bernard Nathanson, of New York, performed thousands of abortions and lobbied for abortion rights before advances in medicine convinced him that human lives were being taken. An atheist, he has produced two dramatic films on abortion to educate people about life in the womb.

One of the most profound experiences of my life was to visit a home for homeless babies in Calcutta last October. Mother Teresa had founded that home out of her profound respect and love and joy for the gift to life. The morning we visited there were four hundred and forty babies there. Mother Teresa invites us all to see that respect for human life is an attitude, a way of living. It is planted and nurtured in the many places and circumstances of our lives where we work and live and play. Each one of us, no matter the circumstances of our lives, can follow her example of respect, compassion and joy at the gift of life. Our witness will be treasured in the heart of God and in the hearts of those whose lives we touch.
Injustice and Tyranny.

Every form of injustice and tyranny is based on treating some people as less valuable than others. When historians come to write the history of the present age, I wonder will they ask, in amazement: How the Western world, considering itself so politically correct, so enlightened, so liberal and so liberated, could tolerate the situation of so much abortion in the world, of so many starving and living beneath the poverty line and finally of the crippling debt to the industrialised world of some of the poorest countries in the world?

The abortions women procure abroad can be the product of fear, anguish and isolation. Too often they are the fruit of the abandonment of responsibility or lack of responsibility of the father. We are living in a world where abortion is widely accepted and promoted. A society, founded on respect for every human life would not respond by seeking to facilitate abortion. It would be generous in ensuring that understanding and support are always available.

In Northern Ireland the Pro-Life Movement spans all political parties and all religious denominations. In a land where so much has divided us in the past, it is always uplifting to identify an area where all shades of political and religious opinions seem to be in agreement. Long may that situation last and may it flourish.
A new human life, once conceived, is not the property of its parents, even if it is still dependent on them. Every human life is sacred, right from the first moment of its existence, because it involves the creative power of God. God did not create death and takes no pleasure in the destruction of the living. God has trust in life and so should we.