Since the beginnings of civilization, one of the important measures of a culture has been the value that the members and leaders of that culture place on a human life. As we progress into areas of scientific knowledge that have never been revealed before, we have begun to delve into the actual mechanisms that underpin the life and health of the human organism. At this stage of scientific advances, the possibilities inherent in the knowledge we have gained begin to spill over into the public arena and become topics of often controversial debate.
The real underlying issue with the controversy over issues such as human cloning, abortion, birth-control, euthanasia, eugenics, and other issues that deal with human life or with purposefully altering or ending the life of a human being is the issue of the value and uniqueness of humanity. There are views both religious and secular, but the divisions are actually not clearly defined by either.
Religion and Humanity
In most of the major religions, the human being holds a special place above and separate from the animal kingdom, although this is not a universal tenet of all religions. There are religions that equate the lives of animals with the lives of humans, and those who hold the value of human life above any other consideration. The most easily accessible illustration of the more common view of the uniqueness of the human being in religion comes from the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs:
In Genesis, the account of creation seems to indicate three levels of creation when it comes to organisms - simple organisms, soulish organisms], and one organism with a spirit - mankind.
The account of the fifth day in Genesis relates the creation of birds and sea creatures. This day also contains one of the three uses of the Hebrew verb bara’ for creation, indicating that the animals created had some new property not already existing, in other words a new thing was created, rather than simply being revealed, as would have been the case had the word haya been used. This does not refer to the physical aspects of the animals, but to some new character they possessed. The Hebrew word for the general type of animal created in this account is nephesh, which doesn’t apply to every living thing, rather it applies to "vital" animals, or those that are "soulish", exhibiting the attributes of mind, will, and emotion.
The sixth day account shows the third use of the word bara’ for creation, indicating that another new property was created when mankind was formed. The word 'asa, meaning "to make form existing materials was also used to refer to man's creation.
From the context, and usage of different forms of the Hebrew words for creation, it can be inferred that mankind was considered to possess a property that no other creature possessed. The Judeo-Christian view is that this unique quality is the eternal spirit said to be possessed by humans alone.
Author's Note: The preceeding is excerpted from an exegetical study of the book of Genesis I composed a few years ago. As I have given me specific authorization to reprint and revise my comments, I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing myself.
Secularism and Humanity
In the secular view, the idea of human uniqueness or dignity is generally more varied and disparate, based in large part on how much the view relies on natural law - the belief that there exists an underlying right and wrong not based on individual belief systems. Those views that lean heavily on the idea of natural law tend to oppose ideas that place humans on the same level as other organisms, be they as repulsive as cannibalism, or as seemingly benign as cloning or genetic manipulation. At the far other end of the spectrum, those who disdain any objective truth such as natural law tend to see no problem with euthanasia, infanticide in the case of genetic diseases or birth defects, or even eugenics. Most average people would likely fall somewhere in-between the extreme views on either end of this continuum.
In short, this is not so simple as a religion vs. secularism issue. The spectrum of belief on the value of human life has a wide range in both the religious and secular arenas. Rather, the views of an individual or culture on these issues rely on the fundamental beliefs that each of us holds as individuals about the value and uniqueness of human life. Thus it is an issue that is fair, reasonable, and appropriate to discuss as a political and cultural issue, and not as one that pits religious against secularism
Afterward: If this article seems familiar, it is because it was added to a node later consumed by Klaproth. At the behest of the editors, who kindly encouraged me, I have reworked the article to be less specific to the prior node, and reposted it.