The Value of Human Life: Broadening Our Definition
What is the first political issue that you think of when you hear the phrase “the value of human life?” It’s probably abortion, right? In my experience, this is the most common issue that is associated with the idea of valuing human life, especially among American Christians. And as someone who believes that a growing fetus is a human life, I don’t disagree with this phrase being associated with the anti-abortion movement.
I would argue, though, that we have a much too limited view of the value of human life when we almost solely apply it to the abortion issue. I have been encouraged as I see more and more Christians today discussing life issues in a more holistic way- from “cradle to grave,”- and emphasizing the dignity of all human life at any age and stage. Many Christians today oppose life issues that affect adults and the elderly, like capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide.
But there is one more area that in which I believe we desperately need to apply this value, and to be honest, I don’t often see it. It’s not as much a life issue like abortion or capital punishment as it is an issue of placing higher value on some lives over others.
The best way for me to explain this is to tell my own story of how I recognized this as an issue myself. I live in the suburbs of Chicago, and every morning I listen to a morning show on a radio station based in the city. Last year, I started noticing a pattern every Monday morning. In summarizing the news of the weekend, the newscaster would note how many people were killed in shootings in the city of Chicago. Usually it was just a simple statement like, “Eight people were killed this weekend in six separate shooting incidents.” Occasionally it would be slightly more specific- maybe something like, “Two men were killed on the Southside last night in what authorities believe was a gang-related shooting.”
I was bothered by these headlines, and disturbed by the fact that, for a time last year, this city less than an hour from my home was a more violent, dangerous place than the war zones of Iraq or Afghanistan. But if I am honest with myself, at that time I didn’t specifically wonder about the people who lost their lives- what their stories were, the family and friends they left behind, or the dreams they may have had for the future.
And then, in August of 2012, a 23-year-old white woman from an affluent Chicago suburb was murdered while visiting St. Louis. As you can see here, her story was all over the news. And it was at this point that I realized that something was very wrong with the face that the media was covering her story so closely, but would reduce the individuals who died in Chicago every weekend to simple numbers- no names, no faces- just statistics. And I was angry at myself for accepting it- for not speaking out and demanding that the same value be placed on all lives.
In researching for this article and talking with others about it, I found out about more and more stories that were hardly talked about in the news, like the story of LaToyia Figueroa, a young woman of African-American and Hispanic descent, who was reported missing after not showing up for work and was later found murdered. She was five months pregnant at the time. But her story did not get nearly as much attention in the media as that of Lacey Peterson, even though the two stories are incredibly similar. There is an underlying message here: Lacey’s life is more worthy of notice- more valued- than LaToyia’s life.
It’s clear that this is definitely an issue of race and socio-economic class. But I believe it’s even deeper than that. When 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was killed in Chicago in January, at first I was impressed to see how much coverage her story was getting in the news, after months of just hearing numbers when it came to shootings in Chicago. But I believe that part of the reason her story got so much coverage is because she was a good kid- she sang at Obama’s inauguration, excelled at school and in extracurricular activities, and had big plans for her future. Those are all wonderful things, of course- and it is incredibly tragic that she lost her life and will not be able to realize her dreams. But ultimately, the life of a gang member who has committed crimes of his own is valuable, too- and the loss of that life should be mourned, too.
Last week, this photo taken of an article in the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye covering five homicides was passed around on Facebook and blog sites. It received so much attention that RedEye responded with a blog post of their own. Although they didn’t attempt to explain the reason behind the bias of their reporting, they did write that they hear the concerns being expressed and they want to open the conversation, which is a good place to start.
I’ll be the first to admit that as a white woman who grew up in the suburbs, I don’t know what it’s like to live in a place where violence is commonplace, and for that reason, I sometimes feel that it’s not my place to speak out about these issues. But this issue has captured me and really pierced my heart, and I don’t feel right about staying silent anymore. As humans, and especially as Christians, we need to value all life- regardless of age, race, wealth and regardless of what a person has or has not done with their lives. If we believe life is given value by the Creator and not by any man-made qualifications, we need to insist that all human life is represented equally in our culture. To do otherwise is to diminish the value ascribed by God and accept a twisted and unjust view of humanity.