April 12, 2024


When deployed to attack euthanasia and abortion, the “sanctity of life” argument is often regarded as a way of smuggling religion into bioethical debates. Now one of the UK’s most prominent bioethicists has given it a new twist. Professor John Harris, of the University of Manchester, the joint editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, contends in the journal Rejuvenation Research that the sanctity of life is “the most important, unambiguous, and widely respected and held moral imperative that we humans respect”. He is by no means famed for his religious sense.

Professor Harris, a utilitarian, is using the notion to lobby for extending human life expectancy as long as possible. A few million years would be nice, he feels. In fact, Professor Harris contends that “the moral imperative to save life… is the same as the moral imperative to postpone death”.

Harris’s argument rests on certain thought-provoking assumptions. As a utilitarian, he believes that doing good is a matter of maximising benefits rather than doing intrinsically good actions. And these benefits should be extended first to existing people, not potential ones. Together these lead toward a focus on enhancing the lives of baby-boomers rather than defending and creating new lives.