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Religion and the Right to (Dispose of) Life: A Study of the Attitude of Christian, Muslim and Hindu Students in India Concerning Death Penalty, Euthanasia and Abortion

  • Francis-Vincent AnthonyEmail author
  • Carl Sterkens
Chapter
Part of the Religion and Human Rights book series (REHU, volume 4)

Abstract

The debate over death penalty, euthanasia and abortion reached a climax during the second half of the twentieth century. It brings into focus the underlying contrasting currents of right to life and right to dispose of life. The pluralistic Indian context in its turn can add to the ambivalent relationship between religion and the (non-)disposability of life. Hence, the question that we address in this paper concerns the role religions play in soliciting and legitimizing the (non-)disposability of life. Our empirical research, among 1215 Christian, Muslim and Hindu college students in Tamil Nadu, focuses on the possible impact of personal religious attitude, contextual religious attitude, and the value of human dignity, on the perception of right to life in the face of death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion. Overall, we find that the three religious groups manifest opposition to disposal of life by death penalty, and an uncertain openness to disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion for victim’s sake. However, as regards euthanasia, while Christians and Hindus tend to be open to disposal of life, Muslims tend to be uncertain. As regards abortion for psycho-economic reasons, the tendency among Christians is non-disposal of life and the tendency among Hindus and Muslims is an uncertain openness to disposal of life. In dealing with the complex issue of (non-)disposal of life, our findings related to personal and contextual religious attitude suggest that religions can provide a meta-ethical basis for both ‘sacredness’ and ‘quality’ human life.

Keywords

Abortion Euthanasia Death penalty Right to life Religion Bioethics Tamil Nadu 

The debate over death penalty, euthanasia and abortion reached a climax during the second half of the twentieth century. It brings into focus the underlying contrasting currents of right to life and right to dispose of life. The pluralistic Indian context in its turn can add to the ambivalent relationship between religion and the (non-)disposability of life. Hence, the question that we address in this paper concerns the role religions play in soliciting and legitimizing the (non-)disposability of life. Our empirical research, among 1215 Christian, Muslim and Hindu college students in Tamil Nadu, focuses on the possible impact of personal religious attitude, contextual religious attitude, and the value of human dignity, on the perception of right to life in the face of death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion. Overall, we find that the three religious groups manifest opposition to disposal of life by death penalty, and an uncertain openness to disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion for victim’s sake. However, as regards euthanasia, while Christians and Hindus tend to be open to disposal of life, Muslims tend to be uncertain. As regards abortion for psycho-economic reasons, the tendency among Christians is non-disposal of life and the tendency among Hindus and Muslims is an uncertain openness to disposal of life. In dealing with the complex issue of (non-)disposal of life, our findings related to personal and contextual religious attitude suggest that religions can provide a meta-ethical basis for both ‘sacredness’ and ‘quality’ of human life.

Introduction

Notwithstanding the plea for mercy from the governments of Australia, France and the European Union, on 29 April 2015 the two convicted drug traffickers, Andrew Chan (31 years) and Myuran Sukumaran (34 years), were executed along with six others by a firing squad on the Indonesian prison island of Nusakambangan. Indonesia is among the four most populous countries – the others being China, India, and the USA – that on 19 December 2016 voted against the sixth resolution (A/RES/71/187) of the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations seeking to ban death penalty.

While death penalty is a stark affront on the right to life, other issues like euthanasia1 and abortion2 add intricate features to the debate. The significance of considering the three issues together lies in that they bring to the fore an underlying paradox: that right to life may imply right to dispose of human life, depending on whether we are dealing with innocent or criminal life, conscious or unconscious life, flourishing or deteriorating life, one’s own or other’s life. While religious traditions have been rather supportive of death penalty for social security reasons, they tend to oppose abortion and euthanasia in compelling terms. Instead, the secular society, that is ever more opposed to death penalty for pro-life motives, is rather tolerant of abortion and euthanasia for pro-choice reasons.

Taking stock of these contrasting trends, we focus on the underlying dilemma of the (non-)disposability of life and explore how religious traditions may contribute to the normative level of ethical questions (Fuchs 1985). In specific terms, the present study seeks to explore the association between the (non-)disposability of life – implied in the issues of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion – and the religious attitudes of Christian, Muslim and Hindu students in Tamil Nadu, India. Given the diverse anthropological visions that underlie their religious beliefs and practices, we can expect differences between Christians (2.3% in India, 6.1% in Tamil Nadu), Muslims (14.2% in India, 5.9% in Tamil Nadu) and Hindus (79.8% in India, 87.6% in Tamil Nadu).3

Ethical concern for life, namely, bioethics, per se would embrace all forms of life, including animal life and plant life. However, in this study we focus on human life – an area of concern also of social ethics – and explore the attitude of young persons with regard to (non-)disposability of life in the concrete cases of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. Biosocial ethical debate over these thorny questions can arise at meta-ethical, normative ethical and applied ethical levels. While meta-ethical discourse deals with religious or transcendent foundations, and applied ethical discourse with social and legal practices, normative ethical discourse seeks to clarify the criteria for evaluating human action. As there are different normative ethical currents, the criteria for evaluating human action may differ according to currents such as ethics of consequences, deontological ethics, and ethics of virtues (Magni 2011, 43–46).

The right to life being basic to all other rights, the ethical discourse being at three different levels, and the context of our research being multi-religious, our approach in this study is necessarily complex. That is, we address the three crucial instances of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion from the perspective of Christian, Muslim and Hindu traditions, on the one hand, and from the secular perspective, on the other. Meta-ethical and normative discourses related to these perspectives are then complemented by the applied level of social and legal practices. Thus, to clarify the biosocial ethical debate over the (non-)disposability of human life, we first examine death penalty, euthanasia and abortion from the perspective of the three religious traditions (Section “(Non-)disposability of human life: religious perspective”) and the secular tradition (Section “(Non-)disposability of human life: secular perspective”), before offering an overview of the social and legal practice related to the three issues (Section “(Non-)disposability of human life: social and legal practice”). We then clarify the conceptual model that links personal and contextual religious attitudes with the three instances of the right to life, and specify the research questions (Section “Conceptual model and research questions”). This is followed by a brief mention of the method (Section “Method”), the presentation of the results (Section “Results of empirical analysis”), and finally a discussion on the salient findings (Section “Discussion and conclusion”).

(Non-)Disposability of Human Life: Religious Perspective

The non-disposability stance sustains that no one can terminate human life because of its sacredness or sanctity. Although ‘sacredness of life’ is generally associated with religious traditions, it seems to have been introduced and upheld by secular currents, where ‘sacredness’ stands for the intrinsic value of human life (Drutchas 1998; Magni 2011, 39f). Leaving the secular perspective to the next section, here we examine the meta-ethical visions of human life in the Christian, Islamic and Hindu religious traditions, together with the normative-ethical implications that follow for death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. Obviously, the stand with regard to (non-)disposal of life is diversified not only between religious traditions, but also within each of them, with or without an official position. Among the Christian traditions, we refer particularly to the Catholic official directives and norms.

Christian Tradition

According to the Christian tradition, human beings created in God’s image (Gen 1:27; 5:1–2), reflecting God’s own spirit, have an intrinsic value (McCartney 1994, 8). “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF] 1988, n. 5). “It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. […] We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 2003, n. 2281).

The sacredness of human life is confirmed by the Son of God assuming it and making it an instrument of human salvation; “a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory” (John Paul II 1995, n. 34; cf. n. 33, 35). As the pope reiterates time and again in Evangelium Vitae (EV n. 5, 20, 40, 53, 81, 87), the sacredness associated with human life gives rise to its inviolability and integrity at every stage and every situation. Earlier the CDF (1974, n. 11) had underscored: “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others”.

The underlying neo-Thomistic Catholic tradition by viewing human nature as oriented towards an end determined by divine plan, clarifies that human action, to be moral, has to follow the natural law based on natural order. The sacrality of life and its non-disposability ensue from the respect for the natural order (Magni 2011, 40f; Brugger 2014, 27; Drutchas 1998, 116–119).

  1. (a)

    Death penalty: In the book of Exodus (20:13), the commandment ‘not to kill’ is viewed as part of the Covenant with God on Mount Sinai. At the same time, the biblical tradition prescribed death penalty for serious crimes against religion (blasphemy, idolatry, etc.), family (incest, adultery, etc.,), community (kidnaping, afflicting orphans and widows, etc.,) and above all against innocent human life. Oddly, it imposed death penalty for the very reason of defending life: “If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made” (Gen 9:6). Although the Law of Moses foresaw death penalty in such cases, the rabbinic traditions have generally tended to restrain its use. As for the New Testament, the Letter to the Romans (13:1–7) is interpreted as upholding State’s authority to inflict death penalty when common good and innocent lives are at stake (Brugger 2014, 59–73; McCarthy 1994, 109f; Berkowitz 2006).

     

An analysis of the Church’s teaching through the centuries (Brugger 2014, 59–139; Tamanti 2004, 21–197) reveals that death penalty was justified from a social perspective for the reason of common good, societal protection, and preventive deterrent; and from a personal perspective for the sake of retribution, expiation and even repentance. The moral right to kill was justified in the case of capital punishment and just war by way of State’s authority, which derives from that of God. Hence, when the Waldensians challenged public authority’s power to take life, Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) clarified that capital punishment could serve as a deterrent, corrective and means for preserving public order, when implemented for serious motives, without hatred (Denzinger 1995, n. 795; Brugger 2014, 103–107).

According to Thomas Aquinas (1485, Summa Theologiae II-II, q 64, a 2), because common good is more than the particular good of an individual, for safeguarding the former a dangerous individual may be put to death. Besides, a grave sinner who has lost his human dignity could be treated as a beast (Brugger 2014, 108–111). In other words, a criminal “has already disposed himself of his right to live” (Pius XII 1952, 787). Thus, “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, […] recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor” (CCC 2003, n. 2267).

Even so, from the second half of the twentieth century – particularly during the 1960s and 1970s – there has been a growing opposition to death penalty in the Catholic Church (Brugger 2014, 132–138). John Paul II (1995) in Evangelium Vitae voices a strong opposition to the infliction of death penalty and sets in motion a wide-ranging reevaluation of the morality of capital punishment (Brugger 2007, 381). Such a stand was later integrated in the CCC, since the editio tipica (1997).4 The CCC (2003, n. 2267) states: “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent’ (EV n. 56)”. In fact, the Pope viewed the growing opposition to death penalty in the modern society as a sign of hope (EV n. 27). The Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, borrowing an expression of John Paul II, qualifies death penalty as “cruel and unnecessary” (n. 381); for, even a murderer does not lose his human dignity (EV n. 9). Such a stand is also summed up in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2004, n. 405). Reinforcing it in his recent address on the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the CCC, Pope Francis adds: “It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator […]. It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”5

In this vein, it is believed that continuance of death penalty would only further dehumanize society, lowering it to the level of the criminal. Moreover, it does not seem to be in line with the biblical trajectory of forgiveness, hope and redemption. Worst of all, it leaves no room for rectification in cases of judicial error, which are not so uncommon. For the foregoing reasons, the contemporary Catholic theology opposes death penalty and views its abolition as in tune with Church’s stand on abortion and euthanasia in defence of human life (McCarthy 1994, 110f; Brown 2007, 256).

  1. (b)

    Euthanasia: In the biblical tradition, there is no explicit condemnation of suicide; instead, enduring martyrdom to resist grave sins is even encouraged (Drutchas 1998, 16). Nevertheless, early Christians following Augustin (354–430 CE) considered taking one’s life a self-murder, also when with the intension of martyrdom one sought to be killed or took up severe ascetic practices. The general spirit of the Christian communities through the centuries is represented by the medieval devotional literature ars moriendi (art of good death) which, recognizing the significance of suffering made sure that the physician did not interfere with the spiritual journey of the patient by hastening the dying process. In the shrouded history of euthanasia, Thomas More (1474–1535) is remembered for an ironic reference to it – in his Utopia (1515) – as a pious and holy action by which one loses nothing but suffering, even though he rejected suicide as a temptation of the devil (Dowbiggin 2005, 12–47; Drutchas 1998, 47).

     

In recent times, appealing to the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (1966, n. 27), John Paul II (1993) in Veritatis Splendor (VS n. 80) condemned euthanasia as an “intrinsic evil” and later reiterated it as “a grave violation of the law of God” (EV n. 65) that goes against the natural law and the written word of God. In this vein, he makes an outright defence of life (EV n. 57), quoting Declaration on euthanasia (CDF 1980): “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a foetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action”.

Since life is God’s gift, euthanasia undermines the respect due to the Creator (CCC n. 2277) and in a way gives God’s prerogatives to the human person (Brown 2007, 252). Likewise, it ignores the redemptive value of suffering testified by the passion and death of Jesus. These two theological principles, namely, God’s sovereignty over human life and the redemptive value of human suffering, cannot directly solve ethical questions as these are more hermeneutic themes (Kelly 1979) or maieutic hints (Fuchs 1985) expressing man’s relation to the Creator. As such, they are bivalent: human beings are both creatures and co-agents, called to find meaning in suffering but also alleviate it. On the one hand, in the face of suffering some treatment must be offered, but not necessarily every possible treatment; on the other hand, man has to find meaning in suffering, but this does not imply deifying it or succumbing to it. Catholic tradition, as voiced by Pius XII (1957), upholds the sanctity of life but also the ethical import of quality of life, which implies that life need not be prolonged by all means (Kelly 1994, 348–350; Dowbiggin 2005, 115f).

Therefore, the traditional distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of preserving life, between allowing a person to die and active euthanasia should be considered (Drutchas 1998, 50–50). In such situations, the principle of double effect – developed by moralists of the mid-twentieth century – can shed some light. Withdrawing extraordinary medical treatment, i.e., allowing a person die, can be morally right; as also when wanting to relieve pain, death may result as an indirect effect. In these cases, the patient’s wish, desire for consciousness and readiness for death must be taken into account (Kelly 1994, 349f). On the contrary, assisted suicide, i.e., assistance offered to a patient by health-care practitioners or someone else, to put an end to his/her life, would be morally wrong as killing an innocent person (Kelly 1994, 350).

While the Church documents represent the official stand of the Catholic Church, in the ongoing debate, some Catholic moral theologians express the opinion that the distinction between killing and allowing a person to die “is not sufficient by itself to make all acts of euthanasia morally wrong. This revisionist position is basically consistent with the normative method known as proportionalism, which rejects the notion that actions in and of themselves can be judged immoral (intrinsically immoral acts). Thus, some Catholic moral theologians now argue that once the dying process is irreversibly begun the proscription of killing loses some of its moral weight. It may be more loving, and thus more consistent with the Christian moral demand, to actively and mercifully abet the process of dying than to permit continued pain and suffering” (Kelly 1994, 350f).

  1. (c)

    Abortion: Although there is no explicit mention or condemnation of abortion, the biblical tradition views the unborn child as a gift from God: “For you created my innermost being: you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139: 13). Early Christianity condemned the then prevalent practice of abortion and infanticide. Abortion was viewed as killing of an innocent person, although there was no consensus about when the foetus becomes a person. According to Aquinas, it would be murder to abort after the ensoulment, which occurred 40 days after conception in the case of a male and 90 days after conception in the case of a female. The movement of the foetus within the womb was also regarded as a sign of this crucial moment. However, Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin held that body and soul existed from the moment of conception. For the same reason, Pope Pius IX, in 1869, imposed the penalty of excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy (Brown 2007, 249). Such a firm stand was taken up in the Code of Cannon Law of 1917 and the excommunication latae sententiae (can. 1398) was reaffirmed in the Code of 1983. Pius XI (1930) in Casti connubii (n. 28–29) referred to abortion as going against the sacredness of an innocent life, the first time human life being qualified explicitly as sacred by the Catholic magisterium.

     

The Declaration on Procured Abortion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1974, n. 12) considers it a terrible crime: “From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother, it is rather the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already”. The non-disposability of human life follows from considering embryo and subsequently foetus as a human person (n. 2270–2274), based on the principles of continuity and potentiality. Church leaders therefore tend to “emphasize what is called a ‘seamless garment’ approach to life issues, which holds that an emphasis on human dignity demands that human life at all its stages and in every context be protected and that its quality be enhanced and improved” (McCartney 1994, 8; cf. Drutchas 1998, 127–130). ‘Seamless garment’ approach implies not only the right to life of the unborn, but also outlaws capital punishment and euthanasia (McCartney 1994, 9; Dowbiggin 2005, 133). Nevertheless, when there is danger to the mother and child, the principle of double effect may result in saving one or the other. In such circumstances, the Anglican Church, soliciting compassion for the mother and responsibility for the unborn child, would leave the decision to individual cases (Brown 2007, 250). Also within the Catholic tradition the possibility of unintentional abortion is recognized through the principle of double effect (CCC 1752), which together with the principle of causality or the ends-mean discussion (CCC 1759) and the principle of proportional gravity (CCC 1754) are important criteria to morally evaluate actions that are in themselves, nevertheless, evil.

The Church’s option for the poor and the marginalized reveals another side of the problem. “Not only are unborn persons vulnerable, but many people of colour are convinced that abortion is being promoted in order to bring about genocide for reasons of race and ethnicity under the guise of concern about population control. […] Sometimes even well-intentioned ecclesial sanctions (e.g., excommunication) have had the unintended side effect of alienating and spiritually dispossessing the very people the church should be most concerned about helping. These penalties should be reconsidered in the light of the church’s fundamental commitment to the marginalized” (McCartney 1994, 9). Pope Francis has addressed this concern in his recent Apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera (2016) by permitting all priests to absolve those who implore God’s mercy after having resorted to abortion. Recognizing the fact that poor women more easily become victims of mistreatment and violence, earlier in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013, n. 212–214), Pope Francis pleaded that care be taken to accompany women who may be considering abortion caught up in profound anguish. At the same time, the pope underscored that the defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of other human rights, even as Church’s stand in these matters is often dubbed as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.

John Paul II (1995) in Evangelium Vitae sums up the current official stand of the Catholic Church on inviolability of human life. In dealing with the three questions concerning right to life, the pope warns about the paradox that acts which were once considered as crimes now seem to assume the nature of ‘rights’ (EV n. 11). He solemnly condemns intentional killing of the innocent persons in general (EV n. 57), procured abortion (EV n. 62) and euthanasia (EV n. 65). These are crimes which no human law can legitimize (EV n. 70–73) and represent the absolute limits below which free individuals cannot lower themselves (EV n. 75). He also backs the move towards the abolition of death penalty (EV n. 56), and points to the emerging clash between life-affirming and life-denying cultures, between “culture of life” (Brennan 2007b) and “culture of death” (Brennan 2007a).6

Islamic Tradition

Muslims consider their religion as last in the line of revealed traditions, which “links the world of transcendence with human affairs, highlighting the sovereignty of God, the reality of the non-material world and the idea of the accountability of human actions. There is thus a dynamic interaction between what can be conceived as the realm of faith (din) and the realm of human affairs (dunya), which underlines the general Muslim understanding of an encompassing relationship between spiritual and material aspect of life” (Nanji 2007, 284).

According to the Islamic tradition, Qur’an (2:77; 33:35; 25:63–75) not only propounds the content of faith but also the fundamental principles of just actions. Yet, diverse ethical currents do exit: “with the ‘rationalists’ insisting that we can know much of what is right and obligatory by independent reasoning, while the ‘traditionalists’ acknowledged only revelation as an appropriate source for such knowledge” (Leaman 2002, 147). A milder ‘rationalist’ version claims that “independent reason is required in some cases, scripture in others, and so there is no incompatibility between them” (Ibid. 147f).

For Islam, human beings, with their liberty, have a special place and dignity in God’s creation as vicegerent (Sammak 2017), and hence “no matter what the material conditions of life, their ethical life is to be governed by moral reasoning, choice and accountability” (Nanji 2007, 287). On the other hand, as God has sanctified human life (harrama Allah), it is to be honoured and revered (Qur’an 17:70). It is inviolable (Qur’an 6:151; 17:33; 25:68), for to deal with life is to step into the territory of God’s moral jurisdiction (hudud Allah) (Abou Ed Fadl 2004, 87f).

  1. (a)

    Death penalty: The punishment prescribed by Sharia (Islamic law) for wrongs such as murder, adultery, fraud and theft, can range from lashes, imprisonment, amputation of limbs to death penalty (Nanji 2007, 320). The underlying reason being: “If anyone kills a person – unless it is for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all people. And if anyone saves a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all people” (Qur’an 5:32).

     

If human life is sacred, then it cannot be disposed of without explicit, unwavering authorization from God; any doubt or ambiguity with regard to it would make termination of life immoral and illegal. Killing would be a crime, “except by way of justice and law” (Qur’an 6:151); therefore, death penalty may be implemented only by a court. When a State metes out death penalty, it is acting in the name of God and not of the citizens or the majority. Nevertheless, viewing the State, as God’s faithful executioner is rather problematic as procedural guarantees are not enough to terminate life (Abou Ed Fadl 2004, 73–79). “While it is possible that a non-despotic State would feel empowered to execute individuals, it cannot derive such empowerment from the Qur’an itself. If anything, the Qur’an seems to empower private individuals with the decision to demand a life for a life or any other paradigm of exaction. However, several factors militate against the exaction of talion by private individuals” (Ibid. 97). Generally, victim’s family is encouraged to practice forgiveness and compassion; they can demand death penalty or pardon the perpetrator accepting monetary compensation for their loss (2:178). If a Muslim seeks to follow the high moral vision of Islam, then vengeance and retaliation cannot be the option.

Fasad fil-ardh (spreading mischief in the land), punishable by death, is rather open to interpretation. It generally includes crimes that affect the community and destabilize the society, such as treason/apostasy, terrorism, rape and adultery. Even in such cases, harsh punishments are served more as deterrent; for, the Islamic penal code aims at saving life, promoting justice and preventing corruption and tyranny. Even when Muslim jurists accept death penalty in principle, they make its implementation very arduous. The primitive measures of punishments are now rarely implemented in most modern societies, as these have set up correctional institutions and prisons that apply modern principles of punishment. According to the religious vision of Islam, it is mercy, not retribution or retaliation that can restore the balance of justice, ethics and existence (Nanji 2007, 320; Abou Ed Fadl 2004, 104f).

  1. (b)

    Euthanasia: In general, a Muslim has the duty to take care of his/her own health and seek medical intervention when ill, since with every ailment God has also given the capacity to find cure. Hence, suicide or deliberate ending of life would be considered “a violation of divine trust and an act of rebellion against God’s merciful and compassionate nature” (Nanji 2007, 315).

     

Although Islam condemns all forms of suicide, martyrs who lay down their lives in defence of their faith are commended. Some of the modern-day suicide bombers are considered martyrs for their faith. While martyrs would be rewarded in paradise, others who commit self-murder would be punished in hell. In this vein, euthanasia would be viewed as interfering with the expiation for sin, therefore with the plan of God (Dowbiggin 2005, 15). Yet, according to some Muslim scholars, in the technologically advanced societies, life-sustaining mechanisms of terminally ill patients – when futile – may be withdrawn to allow for natural death, taking into account community values and family considerations (Nanji 2007, 315f).

  1. (c)

    Abortion: The pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide by some tribes in Arabia was condemned in the Qur’an (17:31): “Do not kill your children because you are afraid of poverty and hunger, for We shall provide for them and for you”.

     

Qur’an (23:12–15; 22:5) views the formation of foetus as a series of transformations or ‘creations’ leading up to ‘ensoulment’. Scholars of the past affirmed the personhood of the foetus, viewing it as a body endowed with a soul, possessing both material and spiritual life. Male and female contribute to the formation of the organism of the child, even as the entire process is governed by God. The foetus at the ensoulment has the right of survival, and hence is a legal entity. However, there is no consensus about the moment of ensoulment. According to some, the ensoulment takes place after 120 days of pregnancy. At this stage, abortion would be considered a homicide, not before it is ‘infused with life’; others instead object to it on the ground that it was ‘going to be ensouled’. When the life of the mother is in danger, according to some Muslim scholars, abortion may be permitted after due consultation with family members and medical personnel. Instead, the Ẓāhirī (literalist) school of law forbids absolutely both contraception and abortion (Rahman 1996, 202–209; Nanji 2007, 314f; Engineer 2012, 10).

Having briefly considered the value of life from the perspective of Islamic tradition and its ethical consequences for the issue of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, we move on to an overview of the meta-ethical and normative orientation in Hinduism.

Hindu Tradition

On pluralistic ethical grounds, Hinduism offers considerable flexibility in beliefs, values and practices. Flexibility and plurality in ethical matters derive from the fact that Hindus follow more an inductive procedure than a deductive one. In other words, to regulate their action in real-life situations, Hindus would have recourse first to their own conscience, and then to the lives of models, leaders and elders, and subsequently consult books (smṛiti literature) or experts on dharma; and only as a last resort would they turn to divine revelation, the Vedas (śruti) (Menski 2007, 5).

Amidst flexibility and ethical pluralism, dharmic and cosmotheandric vision (Panikkar 1993) provide guiding principles. The concept of dharma, underscores that every individual should act in every life-situation with the intent of establishing righteousness. As this would depend to a great extent on the four varṇa (social castes), each individual is said to have a svadharma, i.e., specific dharma. The Hindu dharma lays emphasis on duties rather than on rights; in a way, duties of one person become the rights of another. While dharma obliges the individual to act as a social being, the complementary concept of karma points to the repercussions of individual’s action on oneself and the rest of reality. This follows from the cosmotheandric vision that refers to the Cosmos-God-Man interconnectedness. The principle of interdependence lays emphasis not so much on being autonomous individuals as on being part of a cosmic whole (Menski 2007, 3–6; Sontheimer 1993). In this anthropological scheme, human dignity is closely bound to the consciousness one has and the responsibility one feels as the bridge between the transcendent and the cosmic reality (Anthony 2017).

  1. (a)

    Death penalty: Hinduism does not have a central commandment that forbids killing. Instead, sometimes killing may be inevitable and even necessary as dramatically narrated in Bhagavadgītā. When all is set for the battle, seeing the reluctance of the warrior-hero Arjuna, Lord Krishna who serves as his charioteer, instructs him about his duty to kill even close relatives in order to protect dharma (Menski 2007, 4f).

     

When it comes to death penalty, Hindu teachings are ambivalent: they may permit it for some reasons and forbid it for others. On the one hand, Hinduism preaches ahimsa (non-violence), and on the other, it teaches that the soul cannot be killed as death touches only the physical body. According to the theory of karma, the soul would be reborn into another body until its final dissolution in mokṣa.

The religious, civil and criminal law of Hindus is encoded in the Dharmaśāstras and the Arthasastra. These provide the rules and describe punishments to be meted out for different types of crimes, and specify death penalty in instances such as murder and righteous warfare. In this vein, Vishnusmriti (5:1) states that “great criminals should all be put to death”; and Manusmriti (8:352–86) in dealing with adultery advocates cruel death sentence in some cases (Menski 2007, 41).

Although murder is the worst of crimes, death penalty for it would depend on the intention behind the act. According to Manusmriti (8:349–51) there are instances when killing is lawful, for example, “by killing an assassin the slayer incurs no guilt” (8:351) (Menski 2007, 41). As dharma is closely bound to varṇa, the seriousness of a crime is assessed on the basis of the varṇa status of the perpetrator and the victim. For example, Brahmahatya (killing a Brahmin), according to sacred texts, is the most serious offence, the greatest of mortal sins (Manusmriti 9:235), and yet in the case of a Brahmin who murders another Brahmin the criminal is not subject to death penalty. “Vishnusmriti 5:2, otherwise strict on death sentences, adds that ‘in the case of a Brahmin no corporal punishment must be inflicted’ and advises that a Brahmin murderer must be banished from the country with a mark of his offence branded on his body (5:3)” (Menski 2007, 41f).

  1. (b)

    Euthanasia: The respect for all forms of life and unfavourableness to unnecessary killing do not offer justification for euthanasia in Hinduism. “A prominent Hindu attitude is to say that the terminally ill individual has to wait till the right time (kāla) has come for him or her to die. Those that care for the terminally ill may well seek to lessen pain and suffering, but in principle they have no right to end the other person’s life” (Ibid. 37). Generally, mental and physical suffering is associated with the theories of karma and saṃsāra (cycle of rebirth), and as such, suffering is viewed as a just consequence of negative behaviour. In the face of suffering, then, an attitude of equanimity is called for, as it does not affect the inner self, moving towards the ultimate goal of liberation (mokṣa). Moreover, suicide or assisted suicide would be contrary to the ethical norm of nonviolence (ahiṃsā) (Wujastyk 2012, 635).

     

Although Hinduism lays emphasis on defending life and on the ideal of non-violence, suicide may be morally and ethically acceptable in some situations. “In a ‘willed death’ people who are old and weak, but not terminally ill, may virtually wait till death arrives, refusing to take any food or drink” (Ibid. 37); an old man becoming a samnyāsi may perform his own funeral rites and then leave this world (cf. Manusmriti 6:31); an ideal wife may take up to satī and burn herself to death with her husband’s body on the funeral pyre, gaining the status of goddess (devī) and ideal female. Suicide may result from grief over the loss of a loved one; it may be chosen as a penance, to make up for the crime committed; it may even be taken up as a moral duty to spare the ruler from enforcing the death penalty (Menski 2007, 38).

  1. (c)

    Abortion: The first term āyur of classical Indian science of life Āyurveda signifies the prolongation and preservation life; the second term veda implies its close link with the Hindu religious tradition. According to Hinduism, one of the major aims of life is to procreate; a central aspect of dharma is to preserve and promote life. Hence, medical manuals since the ancient times attach high value to the life in the womb, and consider feticide as killing. In a way, the womb is the creative centre of the universe where divine-human activities intersect, where creatures meet the ‘Lord of life’. It is the Prajāpati, the ‘Lord of creation’, who brings forth the child in the union of man and woman (Crawford 1996, 226–229).

     

As per Manusmriti, in the act of conception there is already a man in the making. Likewise, Caraka Saṁhitā affirms that spirit is present in matter from the time of conception. The new life is an inseparable blending of human and psychobiological existence; hence at no stage of its development is it just matter or tissue that can be eliminated. Abortion would then be termination of a person-in-being. In other words, foetal existence is an elementarily human existence; hence, killing of an embryo is one of the five most atrocious acts. It is judged as a heinous crime in the Brāhmanas as well as in the Upaniṣads. Such a crime would have karmic effect both in this life and in the next, and for such reasons women who resort to abortion are considered impure and inauspicious (Crawford 1996, 230–237; Menski 2007, 36).

According to Bhagavatgītā (16:2), the most vulnerable form life, namely, the child in the womb, deserves ahiṃsā (non-violence). At the same time, the right to life of the foetus is not to be absolutized. When there is a situation of competing rights and values, mother’s life may be favoured on the basis of the greater karmic obligation she has than the foetus. Suśruta Saṁhitā would allow for the removal of gravely damaged or defective foetus on the basis of dayā or compassion (Crawford 1996, 234–237; Menski 2007, 36; Wujastyk 2012, 636f).

In this section we have synthetically exposed the Christian, Muslim and Hindu meta-ethical and normative basis for the (non-)disposal of human life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. Obviously, our short overview cannot represent the full variety of reflections by influential thinkers belonging to the respective religious traditions. While we have focused on the official stand of the Catholic Church and of some other denominations in the case of Christianity, this is more difficult when it comes to Islam and Hinduism. We therefore consider the above sections only as a synopsis of the variety of religiously inspired views on (end-of-) life issues. In the following section we shall briefly explore the (non-)disposability of life from the secular perspective.

(Non-)Disposability of Human Life: Secular Perspective

From the secular perspective, ‘sacrality’ or intrinsic value of human life is the meta-ethical ground for the (non-)disposal of life. Drutchas (1998, 56–74), with a meticulous analysis, elucidates that ‘sacredness of life’ is not explicitly articulated in the biblical tradition nor in the extensive Church traditions up to the seventeenth century. Instead, the roots of ‘sacredness of life’ are to be sought rather in Stoicism antecedent to Christianity and revived during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. With its ‘monistic materialism’, Stoicism highlighted the ‘divine spark’ in every human being, which led ultimately to the acknowledgement of human sacredness or dignity. This was viewed as the source of human equality and autonomy. With the Renaissance, Stoics’ notion of sanctity or sacredness of life was taken up as the basis of secular currents. In the Enlightenment period, ‘sacred’ referred to human dignity and subsequently led to the human rights discourse. Immanuel Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ of universalizing principle and ‘practical imperative’ of retaining the human person never only as a means, but always at the same time as an end, underscored the Enlightenment’s notion of ultimate worth and sacredness of human life. In Kant’s view, autonomy of man was bound by the categorical and practical imperatives, which imply that man has the moral duty to preserve his life. In this vein, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Albert Schweitzer’s ‘reverence for life’ philosophy added a new impetus to the sanctity of all life, not just human.

An analysis of the changes in the penal system, particularly death penalty, brings Joas (2013, 49) to the following conclusion: “In the history of criminal law, the worst crime has generally been that which violates the sacred core of the community. So it seems reasonable to trace changes in the penal system back to changes in the understanding of the sacred”. In his view, “the reforms of penal law and penal practice, and the rise of human rights in the late eighteenth century, are expressions of a profound cultural shift in which the human person became a sacred object” (Ibid. 49). Thus Joas, in line with Émile Durkheim underscores the “sacralisation or sacredness of the person” as the basis for human rights discourse. The author elucidates how the experience of violence is interrelated to the history of human rights even in its very formulation (Ibid. 58, 60, 70). Referring to the Nazi crimes, Joas affirms: “The emphasis on the unity of the human race in Article 1 is consciously intended to counter the destruction of universalism in racial theories. The emphasis on the ‘right to life’ in Article 3 was just as consciously inspired by the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ of the disabled” (Ibid. 73).

As regards (non-)disposal of life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, the normative-ethical discourse based on the secular perspective of sacrality of life give rise to contrasting trends centred on individual autonomy and common good, on the one hand, and on modern technological potential and professional responsibility, on the other. In the cases of euthanasia and abortion, the debate tends to be quite complex as we shall discuss in the following subsections.

Instead, with regard to death penalty, the discussion may be succinctly rendered in two annotations. In the first place – as referred to by Karl Barth – the initiative to restrict and ultimately abolish death penalty arose from the secular sphere than from the Christian sphere. The other worldly orientation of saving the souls perhaps contributed to Christians’ hesitancy in opposing death penalty outright. Secondly, death penalty was invoked for eliminating dangerous criminals for the reason of justice, public safety and common good. Most people today believe that the modern prison facilities that allow for life imprisonment make death penalty unwarranted. Nevertheless, some raise the question, if limited resources should be spent on catering to the needs of criminals (Drutchas 1998, 46).

Individual Autonomy and Common Good

  1. (a)

    The term euthanasia (good death) was revived by Francis Bacon (1561–1626) after its initial use by the Roman historian Suetonius (c 70–140 BCE). Amidst religious and secular response to what is or is not a good death, a turning point was struck with an article published 1870 by Samuel D. Williams, which appealed to Seneca, and the Enlightenment’s argument of freedom to take one’s life, and introduced the concept of ‘worthwhile’ life as equivalent to ‘sacredness’ of life. Already, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) in a way subverted the moral principles based on human nature, central to Christianity and other religions. In his view, the value of human life was no more than any other form of natural life. From Darwin’s pessimistic view of heredity development, it was only a small step to Francis Galton’s concept of ‘eugenics’ (1883) and to its identification as Nazi science following the Nazi law of 1933. Nevertheless, the emerging secularism that brought into question religious beliefs and moral standards, gave rise to pro-choice movement in the twentieth century, viewing ‘death control’ and ‘birth control’ as a matter of human dignity. In contrast, the right-to-life movement that arose to oppose abortion issues in the mid-1970s soon included opposition to mercy killing in their advocacy, insofar as both issues dealt with innocent life. These currents are reflected in the present conflict between radical pro-life religious groups and rationalist pro-choice activists (Dowbiggin 2005, 23, 49–68, 106–126, 131–135).

     

From the individual’s point of view, euthanasia paradoxically implies the right to die, namely, dispose of one’s life or assist others in doing so, when life is not worthwhile anymore, due to terminal sickness or degenerating conditions. In this sense, euthanasia comes close to the understanding of suicide or assisted suicide. Those who favour such choices do so for reasons of individual autonomy and self-determination. “According to this view of life, human dignity is rooted in a person’s capacity to freely shape his own life according to his own beliefs and desires. Therefore, the argument goes, every person also has a ‘right to die’, the right to determine the time and circumstances of his death especially in the face of suffering, apparent indignity, or hardship. […] Moreover, they claim that assisted suicide is not unjust, because it does not deprive the individual of something that he values or desires. […] Finally, proponents claim that assisted suicide or euthanasia is often the most compassionate response to unbearable suffering. It is an act of mercy” (Austriaco 2007, 58).

Those who take a pro-life stand fear that euthanasia by choice can gradually end up in euthanasia by stealth, in the direction of eugenics, and could lead to easy medical experimentation and manipulation (Mauceri 2007). It would be a small step moving from voluntary euthanasia to non-voluntary and involuntary one (see footnote 1). In their opinion, suicide or assisted suicide would mean not absolving one’s duty towards oneself and others; in the Kantian terms, it would be treating oneself as a means rather than an end, and would not be a moral act as it cannot be the basis for a universal law (Magni 2011, 81, 88f; Dowbiggin 2005, 37).

From the perspective of common good, some hold that euthanasia, as well as assisted suicide, could be beneficial to the terminally ill patient and to others, namely, to family members, society and the State (Magni 2011, 82). As care giving of terminally ill persons generally touches women, they view euthanasia as favourable to women’s welfare. In their view, prolonging at all cost a life not worth living entails waste of limited resources. The danger in such a line of reasoning is that active euthanasia could gradually become a socially acceptable form of cost containment, and give way to eliminating poverty by eliminating the poor (Kelly 1994, 252).
  1. (b)

    In the case of abortion, as highlighted by Van der Ven et al. (2004, 85f), the heated debate between pro-life and pro-choice groups lays bare two sides of the same coin. On the one side, the proponents of pro-life demand that human embryo and foetus be protected on account of the right to life, and on the other, the pro-choice group appeal to mother’s dignity as a human person underlining the need for her liberty, security, privacy and productive autonomy.

     

Insofar as mother’s right may conflict with that of the growing child, abortion presents a peculiar case of disposing of a distinct life entirely dependent on another life. The concern seems to be for the quality of life of the mother on the one hand, and that of the foetus on the other. Upholding woman’s dignity, some feminist currents favour abortion in cases such as incest, rape or unwanted pregnancy. Besides the safety and honour of the mother, the good of the present and future family members also enter the debate (Brown 2007, 250).

The web of relationship in which a pregnant woman is involved means that terminating pregnancy is not a private matter, but inherently a social decision. The modern emphasis on individualism and privacy tends to ignore mutual relatedness and responsibility among persons, diminishing the sense of ‘common good’ (McCartney 1994, 6). For this reason, there is strong opposition to abortions resulting from an extreme form of individualism: for career enhancement, convenience or sex selection – rather prevalent in the Indian context. Likewise, some disapprove the public funding of abortion or the use of public medical facilities, as the State should have legitimate interest in protecting the foetus (McCartney 1994, 6f).

Eugenic or other nontherapeutic abortions are sought because the life of the child is valued as not worth living or that society would be excessively burdened by it. It must be remembered that interest in such social beneficence was the underlying justification of Nazi doctors’ genetic and hypothermic experiments. Such trends would undermine the true nature of medical profession and health care institutions (McCartney 1994, 7), as we shall see below.

Modern Technological Potential and Professional Responsibility

In the highly scientific and technological world, some professions directly get involved in the debate on (non-)disposability of life: judicial profession in the case of death penalty and medical profession in the case of euthanasia and abortion.
  1. (a)

    With reference to euthanasia, modern medical facilities capable of prolonging life blur the border between necessary care and therapeutic intransigence (Magni 2011, 81). Even if distinction can be made between action and omission, the diving line between the two may not be easy to draw, when, for example, disconnecting an artificial respirator and causing the death of a terminally ill person. Ethics of consequentialism would judge both on the basis of the consequence of action and omission, whereas deontological ethic would not view omission as unjust. Evaluation of the action or omission becomes further complicated when we consider the intention with which one acts (Magni 2011, 84–86).

     

As to the potential of modern medical facilities, the Catholic Church affirms: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC n. 2278). While ordinary care should not be denied to the sick, provision could be made for palliative care. “The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged” (CCC n. 2279). Reaffirming this stand, Pope Francis, in his recent message to the participants in the European Regional Meeting of the World Medical Association (16–17 November 2017) warns: “Greater wisdom is called for today, because of the temptation to insist on treatments that have powerful effects on the body, yet at times do not serve the integral good of the person”.7

From a professional perspective, some are of the opinion that legalising active euthanasia and assisted suicide would go against common good, as it would gradually “undermine the medical profession by eroding the trust of patients in their physicians and caregivers” (Austriaco 2007, 58; cf. Kelly 1994, 252). In fact, the Hippocratic Oath (fifth-third Century BCE), a milestone in the history of medicine, forbade the intervention of physicians to shorten the life of the patient (EV n. 89; CDF 2009). For this reason, some would call for a compassionate and effective end-of-life care rather than resort to euthanasia (Dowbiggin 2005, 5–10).
  1. (b)

    As for abortion, it may be remembered that during the nineteenth century, it was the medical profession that gave expression to the Enlightenment ideal of sacredness of life by opposing the public tolerance of abortion and standing for the outlawing of abortion except for therapeutic purpose. It is true that Christian Churches were generally opposed to abortion, but only at the close of the century did they firmly condemn abortion (Drutchas 1998, 69–72).

     

Presently, modern medical facilities make possible safe abortion at the early stage of pregnancy, particularly in the case of defective foetus that could endanger the life of the mother. At the same time, with the technological progress, its potential for treating the foetus has also increased. “One can hope that such progress will continue, in accordance with the vocation of doctors, which is not to suppress life but to care for it and favour it as much as possible” (CDF 1974, n. 26).

Overall, those who favour the disposal of human life by euthanasia and abortion hold that what really counts is not mere biological life, but the quality of life. Therefore, when life is not worthwhile, because it lacks consciousness, autonomy, self-determination, etc., it may well be disposed of. Yet, how the quality of life can be understood and gauged, without absolute respect for life, remains debatable (Magni 2011, 41f).

(Non-)Disposability of Human Life: Social and Legal Practice

Having dealt with the meta-ethical and normative aspects of religious and secular perspectives, we now turn to the social and legal practice. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” – may be considered as the basis of all other rights. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (1949), in its turn endorses the right to life and personal liberty in these terms: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”.

The three problem areas that we address in our research bring into focus the rapport between the value of ‘life’ and the other two values of ‘liberty’ and ‘security’ of the person. The debate over death penalty brings up the conflict between the values of ‘life’ and ‘security’ of persons in society. Instead, the debate over euthanasia and abortion bring into contrast the values of ‘life’ and ‘liberty’ of individuals: liberty to end one’s life when not worthwhile in the case of euthanasia; and liberty to terminate an incipient new life to safeguard mother’s life when at risk biologically, or socially in case of rape and incest. The contrasting trends concerning these three issues arise from the priority given to ‘life’ over ‘liberty and security’, or vice-versa.

Death Penalty

Of the three issues concerning right to life, namely, death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, it is the first that has been further specified in the Human Rights tradition. Recalling Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 solemnly states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. […] Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence. Amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence of death may be granted in all cases. […] Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women”.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC)8 – originating as British colonial legislation in 1860 – foresees death sentence, but it also allows for its commutation into life sentence (Art. 54–55). In 1983, the Supreme Court of India ruled that death penalty should be imposed only in “the rarest of rare cases”. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has sanctioned death penalty to be carried out in four instances since 1995.9

In December 2007, India voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on death penalty. In November 2012, India again upheld its stance on capital punishment by voting against the UN General Assembly draft resolution seeking to ban death penalty. Recently, on 19 December 2016, with 117 out of 193 States voting in favour of the sixth resolution (A/RES/71/187), the UN member states reasserted their support for a universal moratorium on death penalty. While 31 countries abstained, five were absent. Then again, India was one of the 40 countries voting against it.10 India is of the opinion that its penal code guarantees sufficiently against indiscreet use of death penalty.

Euthanasia

Euthanasia was viewed by Seneca – who committed suicide in 65 CE – as valuable and handy means of exiting the world. Closer to our own times, namely, during the 1980s and the 1990s, when AIDS began to spread among homosexual communities, these communities became a fertile ground for the right-to-die movement (Dowbiggin 2005, 2–6). In the contemporary society, those who follow liberalism and liberal constitution of the State claim that individuals should be able decide about it according to their faith, conscience and conviction. Currently euthanasia and assisted suicide are generally prohibited; yet three types of juridical recognition are in place: renouncing the juridical action, depenalization, and legalization of active and passive euthanasia. As of September 2017, active euthanasia is legal, under specific but differing conditions in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and Canada; and some form of assisted suicide in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania, Canada and a few US States (Magni 2011, 92f; Austriaco 2007, 58).

In the Indian context, IPC 299 on culpable homicide states: “Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide”. With reference to this norm, it is clarified that accelerating the death of another labouring under disease or bodily infirmity can amount to causing death. Although euthanasia is not mentioned explicitly, this norm may be considered to include it. Concerning suicide and assisted suicide, IPC 305 states: “If any person under eighteen years of age, any insane person, any idiot, or any person in a state of intoxication, commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide” is guilty. Similarly, IPC 309 regards attempted suicide as a punishable offence.

In the Indian social context, religious traditions such as Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism consider it a religious act to choose to die by refusing/withholding all types of nutrition. Some human rights advocates, calling for proper legislation, challenge such practices today. When, for example, a devout Jain resorted to Santhara/Sallekhana (ritual of fasting unto death), an act of supreme renunciation undertaken only by the most spiritually pure, the Rajasthan High Court order made it an offence punishable under the IPC. Human rights activists compared it to involuntary euthanasia, whereas the High Court petition compared to Satī (a practice outlawed by the British in 1829). The Jain community responded to this with protests, and the Indian Supreme Court ended up reversing the order until further deliberations (Indian Express, September 2, 2015). Priyamvadha Mohansingh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology of Madras University, brought to light that Thalaikoothal, a form of intentionally killing elderly or ‘geronticide’ was practiced in Madurai, Virudhunagar and Theni districts of Tamil Nadu (The Hindu, February 18, 2016). These social and legal practices point to an emerging debate over euthanasia in the Indian context.

Abortion

The opening statement of Article 6 (§1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, solemnly declares: “Every human being has the inherent right to life”. The question that arises in the face of abortion is if ‘every human being’ includes the foetus. In other words, does foetus have legal rights?

After abortion was legalized under Soviet norms in the 1950s, permissive abortion laws were passed in the Soviet bloc countries. With the Abortion Act of 1967, Britain became first Western country to allow it with other countries following suit. In Britain, it is illegal to abort foetuses after 24 weeks of pregnancy, unless there is risk to the life of the pregnant woman, injury to her physical or mental health or her existing children, or serious health or mental abnormalities to the child in the womb. After this period, namely, 24 weeks of pregnancy, the foetus is viable to live outside the womb, and destroying such a foetus would be equivalent to murder (Brown 2007, 249; Brugger 2014, 135). During the second half of the twentieth century, after Britain and the USA, abortion was legalized in several European countries and Asian communist countries, with an estimated 50 million abortions worldwide each year (Hostetler and Coulter 2007, 1).

Abortion was legalised in India by the Medical Termination of the Pregnancy Act of 1971.11 It permits the termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners up to the 20th week of gestation, for specific reasons such as danger to the mother or to her mental health, mother being minor or lunatic, risk to the child, and pregnancy resulting from rape. The definition of the grounds for termination of the pregnancy after amendments is so wide, that the World Health Organization (WHO 2011, 4) considers India as one of the six countries that permits abortion on all grounds, though not on request, meaning that endorsement of a doctor is necessary. The magnitude of the abortion phenomenon may be grasped from statistics of the World Health Organization (Sedgh et al. 2016): it is estimated that about 35 abortions occurred annually per 1000 women aged 15–44 years worldwide in 2010–14, which in absolute numbers is about 56,3 million induced abortions per year. In India, official figures of abortion ratios are relatively low. It sets the abortion ratio at 6.1 abortions per 1000 women aged 15–44 (Indian Council of Medical Research statistics), but it is estimated that in addition to this figure about two thirds of abortions take place outside the authorized health services (WHO 2011, 22; George et al. 2017, 532). In the male-dominated Indian society, where girl child is sometimes seen as an unwanted extra burden, particularly in view of dowry, the possibility of determining the sex of the unborn child have led to the widespread practice of aborting female foetuses. For this reason, several Indian states have prohibited sex testing the unborn child. Even so, faced with the problem of population explosion, the Indian State appears to connive in unauthorized abortion, consequently in the abortion of female foetuses (Menski 2007, 36f; Wujastyk 2012, 637). Sex-selective abortion is clearly reflected in the birth figures. India has shocking statistics on sex ratios with a disproportionately higher number of births of boys since the early 1980s. Although some excessive birth of boys is the biological norm, for sure not to the extent as seen in some places in India. Preponderant male birth rates are as high as 136 boys to 100 girls in certain districts, particularly in the west of the country from Punjab to Maharashtra. According to the 2011 census, the birth sex ratio in India was 109.1 boys to 100 girls (i.e. 917 girls for 1000 boys). Surprisingly, sex ratio imbalance of births also correlates with religious groups, the biggest excess of male birth being among Sikhs (129.8 boys against 100 girls) and Jains (118.0), followed by Hindus (110.9), Muslims (107.4) and Christians (103.8) in 2001 (Guilmoto 2007, 8; Hvistendahl 2011, 5ff). Such differences make a cross-religious study on the influence of religious beliefs and practices on attitudes towards abortion highly relevant.

In connection with IPC 299 on culpable homicide, it is clarified that “causing of the death of child in the mother’s womb is not homicide. But it may amount to culpable homicide to cause the death of a living child, if any part of that child has been brought forth, though the child may not have breathed or been completely born”. Similarly, causing death of unborn quick child would amount to culpable homicide (IPC 316).

There is a justifiable fear that permitting legal exceptions to the law forbidding killing – as in the cases of euthanasia and abortion – is a slippery slope. “When a society decides that certain kinds of killing are moral, there is an ever-increased chance that the society will extend such permission even further” (Kelly 1994, 351).

Having considered the (non-)disposability of life with reference to death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, from the perspective of the three religions – Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – and that of secular trends, and having highlighted briefly the current social and legal practice with regard to these issues, we proceed to the conceptual model that introduces the empirical phase of our research.

Conceptual Model and Research Questions

The range of our empirical study covers besides right to life, civil rights (Anthony and Sterkens 2016), political rights (Anthony and Sterkens 2018), juridical rights, socioeconomic rights and the underlying principle of separation between religion and State. However, in the present chapter we focus on (non-)disposability of life in association with religious attitudes, insofar as the latter can have an impact on the ethical practice of individuals and communities.

Based on the theoretical framework – described above – a conceptual model (see Fig. 2.1) was designed with (non-)disposability of life as dependent variable, focused specifically on the attitude concerning death penalty, euthanasia and abortion.
Fig. 2.1

Conceptual model: effects of independent variables (personal and contextual religious attitudes and value of human dignity) and background variables (personal and religious characteristics, psychological and socio-political traits) on the dependent variable (Right to life related to death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion)

As for religious attitudes – the independent variables – we distinguish between personal and contextual aspects. The personal aspects include religious beliefs, experiences and practices. The contextual aspects comprise the function of religion in society, the approach to religious plurality, and the trust in one’s own and others’ religions. Besides, from a secular perspective the value of human dignity being central to right to life, it also forms part of the independent variables.

The background features taken into account refer to personal characteristics, religious characteristics, psychological traits and socio-political traits.

The conceptualization and operationalization of these variables form part of the International Empirical Research Project ‘Religion and Human Rights 2.0’.12 Hence, we limit ourselves to a synthetic presentation of the operationalization of the three sets of variables in the following section.

The research questions that we seek to address are:
  1. 1.

    What tendency emerges among the college students regarding non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

     
  2. 2.

    Are there significant differences between Christian, Muslim and Hindu students regarding non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

     
  3. 3.

    Which personal and contextual religious attitudes and valuing of human dignity relate to non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

     
  4. 4.

    Which personal and religious characteristics and psychological and socio-political traits relate to non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

     
  5. 5.

    Which independent variables (personal and contextual religious attitudes and valuing of human dignity) and background variables (personal and religious characteristics, and psychological and socio-political traits) emerge as predictors of non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

     

Method

Sample and Data Collection

With the view to examining the students’ agreement with (non-)disposability of life and its rapport with their religious attitudes, we draw on the data collected in September–October 2014 in Tamil Nadu, India. We decided to collect data from around 1200 respondents, among whom men and women, and religious traditions were equally represented; and hence we used a stratified quota sampling with random selection of respondents in each stratum.

The respondents of the study primarily included undergraduate students of seven Arts and Science colleges. Two colleges were chosen from each of the three regions and one from the State capital, resulting in the following number of respondents for the different regions: northern region (308), western region (304), southern region (303) and Chennai (300). The total sample arrived at comprised 1215 respondents with 400 Hindus, 408 Muslims and 407 Christians. There were 614 male and 601 female respondents, and they mostly belonged to the age group 17–20 years. We consider this age group suitable for studying the sensitivity concerning right to life, as at this stage they begin to make initial decisions with regard to their future family and social life.

Measuring Instrument

The students who formed our sample were asked to fill in a questionnaire in the framework of the International Religion and Human Rights research project mentioned above. The items related to the dependent variable (right to life), independent variables (personal and contextual religious attitudes and valuing of human dignity) and background variables (personal and religious characteristics, and psychological and socio-political traits) were part of this wider research project.

The dependent variable (see Table 2.1) consists of a measurement of agreement with twelve items representing the three issues of right to life: death penalty (items 1a and 1b); euthanasia (items 2a, 2b, and 2c); and abortion (items 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, 3e, 3f and 3g).
Table 2.1

Levels of agreement (mean and standard deviation) with items concerning right to life, namely, death penalty, euthanasia and abortion for all respondents in descending order of average agreement

 

N

Mean

S.d.

Death penalty:

1b. A death sentence should always be commuted to life sentence

1211

3.45

1.31

1a. The death penalty should strictly be prohibited because of the right to life

1211

3.33

1.39

Euthanasia:

2b. Euthanasia should be permitted in case of unbearable and irreversible suffering

1201

3.28

1.27

2c. Euthanasia should be permitted in the case of unbearable and irreversible suffering, if palliative care is exhausted

1199

3.23

1.28

2a. Euthanasia should be prohibited in all circumstances

1202

3.09

1.37

Abortion:

3e. Abortion should be permitted when the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy

1205

3.59

1.32

3d. Abortion should be permitted when there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby

1212

3.54

1.35

3a. Abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances because it terminates beginning human life

1211

3.36

1.54

3b. Abortion should be permitted in case of rape

1213

3.32

1.44

3c. Abortion should be permitted in case of incest

1209

3.17

1.38

3g. Abortion should be permitted when the woman cannot afford any more children psychologically

1213

3.12

1.36

3f. Abortion should be permitted when the woman cannot afford any more children economically

1212

2.87

1.42

Scale: 1 = strong disagreement; 2 = disagreement; 3 = uncertain; 4 = agreement; 5 = strong agreement

The independent variables comprise personal religious attitudes and contextual religious attitudes. Personal religious attitudes are specified in terms of religious beliefs, experiences and practices. Religious beliefs include: (a) belief in the existence of God, (b) belief in a personal God (theism, pan-en-theism, and natural pan-en-theism) and in a non-personal God (deism, pantheism), and (c) critical approach to one’s religious beliefs. Religious experience is represented as (a) faith experience and spiritual experience, and (b) experience of the divine intervention. Religious practices refer to (a) frequency of prayer, (b) participation in religious services, and (c) influence of religion on daily life. The contextual religious attitudes focus on: (a) functions of religion related to public opinion, national culture, prophetic voice, spiritual service, and cultural conformity, (b) exclusivist and pluralist approach to other religions, and (c) trust in one’s own religion and in others’ religions.

The independent variable value of human dignity is operationalized in terms of dignity based on merit, moral behaviour, and intrinsic worth. All these independent variables – except for those consisting of single items – are results of rigorous procedure of factor analyses. However, we do not report on the factor analyses of the independent variables, except for two cases where new configurations emerge (see footnote 11 and 12).

Four sets of background variables have been taken into account. Personal profile focuses on sex and age. Variables related to religious socialization include: (a) belief of parents and of the best friend, (b) expectation of parents that their children adopt their faith, and (c) interaction with adherents of other religious traditions. The psychological traits that could be significant to the religion and human rights rapport are: (a) right-wing authoritarianism, (b) social dominance orientation, and (c) empathy. The socio-political traits that could be significant are: (a) intercultural openness, and (b) political orientation (measured on a 1–10 scale from left to right). Generally, the students’ responses have been measured on a Likert scale 1–5, from disagreement to agreement with ‘uncertain’ as the middle point.

Methods of Analysis

With the view to understanding the general tendency of the respondents to (non-)disposability of life, descriptive analysis, namely, the calculation of mean and standard deviation for each of the twelve items, was done. In the factor analysis undertaken subsequently, the factors representing death penalty, euthanasia and abortion were found to be rather reliable.

To test for significant differences between Christian, Muslim and Hindu students in their agreement with (non-)disposal of life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, Scheffé’s test was employed.

Simple correlation analysis evinced some moderately strong correlations (Pearson’s r) between independent variables (personal and contextual religious attitudes, and value of human dignity) and agreement with (non-)disposability of life. Similarly, correlation analysis was done between personal and religious characteristics, and psychological and socio-political traits on the one hand and agreement with (non-)disposability of life on the other.

Finally, with the view to identifying the predictors of agreement with (non-)disposal of life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, regression analysis was undertaken with independent and background variables. We included those independent variables which showed at least moderate correlation (r ≥ 15) with the specific variant of (non-)disposal of life in at least one of the three religious groups.

Results of Empirical Analysis

Taking up the five research questions in order, we shall analyse the respondents’ understanding of the (non-)disposability of life by examining the data at item level and at scale level, followed by correlation and regression analyses of emerging factors with independent and background variables.

Research Question 1

What tendency emerges among the college students regarding non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

Descriptive statistics (mean and standard deviation) on item level brings to light the general tendency among our respondents. Concerning death penalty (Table 2.1), our respondents tend to agree with the view that death sentence should always be commuted to life sentence (item 1b: mean 3.45), and that death penalty should be strictly prohibited because of the right to life (item 1a: mean 3.33). Overall, our respondents tend to be opposed to death penalty; that is, they tend to be unfavourable to the disposal of life by death penalty. Although these two items have limited correlation, we decided to keep them together in one scale for theoretical reasons. We may term this scale as ‘non-disposal of life by death penalty’ (α .29; number of cases 1207).

As for euthanasia (Table 2.1), our respondents manifest positive uncertainty (in descending order) with regard to two items: that it should be permitted in case of unbearable and irreversible suffering (item 2b: mean 3.28), and particularly if palliative care is exhausted (item 2c: 3.23). Concerning the third item, that euthanasia should be prohibited in all circumstances, they tend to be rather uncertain (item 2a: 3.09). It may be noted that item 2a is formulated as resisting euthanasia, while items 2b and 2c are formulated as supporting euthanasia. Overall, our students show some positive uncertainty concerning disposal of life by euthanasia. Factor analysis (PAF, oblimin rotation) with the three items results in the removal of item 2a because of low factor loading and low communality. Evidently, item 2a was reverse coded before factor analysis. It results in a two item scale (2b and 2c) labelled ‘disposal of life by euthanasia’ (α .51; number of cases 1215).

The final section of Table 2.1 presents the mean scores (in the descending order) of the seven items representing the question of abortion. The respondents manifest clear agreement to abortion when the woman’s health is seriously endangered (item 3e: mean 3.59) and when there is strong chance of serious defect in the baby (item 3d: mean 3.54). With regard to three other items, they manifest tendencies toward agreement: abortion should be permitted in the case of rape (item 3b: mean 3.32), incest (item 3c: mean 3.17), and when the woman cannot afford any more children psychologically (item 3g: mean 3.12). Only in the case of abortion when the woman cannot afford any more children economically, the respondents show some tendency toward disagreement (item 3f: mean 2.87). Considering the (weak) agreement with disposal of life in the other items, we note a certain anomaly in the agreement with item 3a which is formulated as an appeal against abortion (mean 3.36): “Abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances because it terminates beginning human life”. In the factor analysis, the score of this item was obviously inverted; however, it had to be eliminated because of very low commonality.

As shown in Table 2.2, factor analysis of items referring to abortion (PAF, oblimin rotation) reveals two rather reliable factors explaining a total variance of 33.40%. Factor 1 representing ‘disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake’ includes pregnancy resulting from rape or incest and the woman’s or child’s health hazard. The reliability is rather high (Cronbach’s alpha .63). Factor 2 representing psycho-economic reasons for abortion is also reliable with high Cronbach’s alpha (α .57), and it may be termed as ‘disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons’.
Table 2.2

Factor analysis (PAF) of right to life: abortion

 

F1

F2

h2

3c. Abortion should be permitted in case of incest

.61

.10

.33

3b. Abortion should be permitted in case of rape

.59

−.00

.35

3d. Abortion should be permitted when there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby

.51

−.09

.32

3e. Abortion should be permitted when the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy

.34

−.18

.21

3g. Abortion should be permitted when the woman cannot afford any more children psychologically

.00

−.71

.51

3f. Abortion should be permitted when the woman cannot afford any more children economically

.02

−.54

.30

Cronbach’s Alpha

.63

.57

 

Number of valid cases

1196

1210

 

Eigenvalue = 1; Oblimin rotation with Kaiser Normalization; extraction: PAF; Total explained variance 33.40%; N = 1215

F1 = Disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake; F2 = Disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons

Research Question 2

Are there significant differences between Christian, Muslim and Hindu students regarding non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

As shown in Table 2.3, Scheffé’s test reveals that there are few significant differences between the three religious groups concerning their attitude towards (non-)disposal of life.
Table 2.3

Levels of agreement (mean and standard deviation) with regard to death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion for Christian, Muslim and Hindu students and comparison of means between religious groups of respondents (Scheffé’s test for Euthanasia: F-value 7.24; p < .001; and for Abortion psycho-economic: F-value: 16.69; p < .000)

 

Groups

N

mean

S.d.

Muslim

Hindu

Non-disposal of life by Death penalty

Christian

407

3.40

1.11

  

Muslim

408

3.39

0.93

Hindu

400

3.37

1.06

Disposal of life by Euthanasia

Christian

404

3.36

1.16

*

 

Muslim

402

3.09

0.91

  

Hindu

397

3.30

1.03

*

 

Disposal of life by Abortion: Victim’s sake

Christian

407

3.30

1.01

  

Muslim

408

3.45

0.87

Hindu

400

3.46

0.90

Disposal of life by Abortion: psycho-economic reasons

Christian

407

2.73

1.22

*

*

Muslim

408

3.09

1.09

  

Hindu

400

3.17

1.13

Scale: 1 = strong disagreement; 2 = disagreement; 3 = uncertain; 4 = agreement; 5 = strong agreement

Intergroup difference are significant at p < .05 (*)

As regards non-disposal of life by death penalty, the mean scores show that Christian (3.40), Muslim (3.39) and Hindu students (3.37) tend to reject death penalty. Such a stand probably results from the global movement for abolition of death penalty, sustained also by the United Nations. It could also be the effect of the debate provoked by the execution of three criminals between 2012 and 2015 in India (see footnote 7).

With regard to disposal of life by euthanasia, Muslims students differ significantly from the other two groups, with Muslims (mean 3.09) showing the least agreement compared to Christian (3.36) and Hindu (3.30) respondents. Students’ positive uncertainty is understandable, since euthanasia here stands for active euthanasia at an extreme stage when suffering is unbearable and irreversible with palliative care exhausted. It appears that students are caught between non-disposability of life, which has deep roots in the religious traditions, and patient’s extreme state of agony. As we mentioned above, euthanasia seems to be an emerging area of ethical debate in India, where ‘voluntary suicide’ by renouncing nutrition is deemed a religious act particularly among Jains. Besides, there are indications that intentional and involuntary euthanasia of elderly (geronticide) is also quietly being practiced in Tamil Nadu. Currently, human rights activists are beginning to challenge such practices. In our previous research among Higher Secondary Schools in Tamil Nadu (Van der Ven and Anthony 2008), the Christian, Muslim and Hindu students tended to accept that politicians should decide about euthanasia irrespective of religious leaders’ affirmations. Probably, they view euthanasia as a social issue, which concerns the political sphere rather than the religious. Still, we find in our dataset that Muslims (3.29) show the lowest agreement compared to Christians (3.34) and Hindus (3.37) with the following item: “Politicians may consult religious leaders about any ethical problem in the country, but should decide independently by themselves”.

As for abortion when the mother is a victim of sexual abuse or her health and/or that of the foetus is in danger, the three religious groups manifest agreement tendency with regard to the disposal of life. Scheffé’s analysis reveals that the differences in mean scores between Christian (3.30), Muslim (3.45) and Hindu students (3.46) in levels of acceptance are not statistically significant. Incest, rape and health hazards of the mother and foetus are held as sufficient reasons for abortion. This observation obviously does not dispense with the necessity of ethical reflection on these cases.

As regards abortion for psycho-economic reasons, we find that Christian students (mean 2.73) show some tendency toward disagreement and differ significantly from Muslims (mean 3.09) and Hindus (mean 3.17) who manifest positive uncertainty. While Christians tend to disagree, Muslims and Hindus tend to doubt whether the psychological and economic situation of the mother can justify the disposal of life. It is quite possible that the pregnant women in Muslim and Hindu families are more conditioned by psychological and economic pressures.

Research Question 3

Which personal and contextual religious attitudes and valuing of human dignity relate to non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

What then is the social location of (non-)disposability of life? Examining the (non-)disposal of life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, for each of the three religious groups, we find a number of significant correlations with independent variables (Table 2.4). We shall comment on the moderately strong correlations for each religious group starting with death penalty and euthanasia, followed by abortion for victim’s sake and abortion for psycho-economic reasons.
Table 2.4

Correlations (Pearson’s r, 2-tailed) between dependent variables of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion and independent variables

 

Non-disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Death Penalty

Euthanasia

Abortion: Victim’s sake

Abortion: psycho-economic reasons

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Personal religious attitudes

 Belief in personal god

.15 **

.08

.08

.06

.11*

.11*

−.09

.19**

.05

−.08

−.02

−.03

 Belief in non-personal god

.15 **

.15 **

.10

.07

.12*

.11*

−.05

.34 **

.09

−.10*

−.02

−.02

 Belief in the existence of god

.11*

.02

.07

.01

.12*

.09

.02

.25 **

.07

.05

.10

.01

 Critical approach to religious belief

.04

.08

.04

.09

.11*

.06

.08

.00

−.07

.08

.13*

−.06

 Religious experiences

.17 **

.15 **

.22 **

.02

.20 **

.00

.06

.33 **

.10

−.07

.15 **

.01

 Experience of divine intervention

.08

.09

.02

.07

.13**

.07

−.02

.21 **

−.03

−.03

.01

.00

 Frequency of prayer

−.03

−.02

−.06

−.03

.09

.02

−.01

.14**

−.02

.00

−.04

−.08

 Participation in religious service

−.04

.01

.00

.00

.01

−.05

−.11*

.07

−.09

−.04

.14**

−.07

 Influence on daily life

−.02

.16 **

.05

.02

.09

.15 **

.07

.17 **

−.09

.05

.01

.11*

Contextual religious attitudes

 Integral transformative function

.18 **

.22 **

.12*

.11*

.11*

.00

.12*

.17 **

.26 **

−.07

−.05

.02

 Cultural conformity function

.08

.15 **

.14 **

.01

.11*

.05

.03

−.05

.16 **

.07

.02

.01

 Exclusivist approach to religions

.02

.14**

.12*

.14*

.09

−.07

.14**

.28 **

.03

.02

.04

−.05

 Pluralist approach to religions

.11*

.15 **

.11*

.18 **

.08

−.02

.22 **

.12*

.16 **

.02

.08

.00

 Trust in one’s religion

.07

.03

.16 **

.03

.02

.11*

−.00

.15 **

.07

−.10

.06

−.10*

 Trust in others’ religion

.04

−.00

.16 **

.00

−.05

.03

.00

−.13*

.02

−.03

.05

−.05

Value of human dignity

 Dignity of merit

.06

.18 **

.15 **

.21 **

.14**

.19 **

.03

.15 **

.09

−.00

.15**

.02

 Moral dignity

.16 **

.19 **

.03

.13*

.11**

.12*

.01

.22 **

.16 **

−.00

.07

−.03

 Intrinsic human dignity

.10*

.16 **

.12*

.04

.17 **

−.07

.01

.20 **

.06

−.01

.04

.02

Correlations are significant at p < .00 (**) or p < .05 (*) level (2-tailed)

Interpretation of correlations: weak (r < .15), moderately strong (.15 ≤ r < .30) and strong (r ≥ .30) associations

Non-disposal of Life by Death Penalty

Considering the personal religious attitudes (Table 2.4), in the case of Christians we find that opposition to death penalty is moderately associated with belief in both personal God (r .15) and non-personal God (r .15), whereas in the case of Muslims there is moderately strong association with belief in non-personal God (r .15). It is interesting to note that non-disposal of life by death penalty manifests moderately strong association with religious experience13 in the case of all the three groups: Christians (r .17), Muslims (r .15) and Hindus (r .22). Among Muslims, religion’s influence on daily life (r .16) also has moderately strong association with opposition to death penalty. Overall, belief in God and religious experience imply greater opposition to death penalty.

When analysing the contextual religious attitudes we note an interesting pattern of correlations particularly among Muslims and Hindus. In the first place, the integral transformative function of religion14 has moderately strong association with non-disposal of life by death penalty in the case of Christians (r .18) and Muslims (r .22); instead, the cultural conformity function has moderately strong association in the case of Muslims (r .15) and Hindus (r .14). It is significant that the transformative function of religion supports the non-disposal of life by death penalty among Christians and Muslims, and the need to keep abreast of cultural development makes Muslims and Hindus open to the abolition of death penalty.

Among Muslims, both exclusive (r. 14) and pluralist approaches (r. 15) to religion have moderately strong association with non-disposal of life by death penalty, whereas among Hindus, trust in one’s religion (r .16) and in others’ religion (r. 16) has moderately strong correlation. In the case of Muslims and Hindus, esteem for one’s religion and openness to other’s religion support the non-disposal life by death penalty.

As for value of human dignity, viewing it on the basis of merit has moderately strong association with opposition to death penalty in the case of Muslims (r .18) and Hindus (r .15). Whereas in the case of Christians (r .16) and Muslims (r .19), human dignity as based on the moral dignity of persons has moderately strong correlations with resistance to death penalty. Furthermore, among Muslims considering human dignity as intrinsic to human beings has moderately strong association (r .16) with the non-disposal of life by death penalty. We find that the value of human dignity has a particular significance for Muslims in their opposition to death penalty.

Disposal of Life by Euthanasia

As shown in Table 2.4, personal religious attitudes seem relevant particularly for Muslims, although most correlation are weak (i.e. r < .15). Religious experiences (r .20) have moderately strong association with disposal of life by euthanasia. In the case of Hindus, religion’s influence on daily life (.15) seems to be supportive of euthanasia. The favourableness of Muslims to euthanasia on the basis of their personal religious attitudes seems rather puzzling, as we expected religious beliefs to be opposed to euthanasia.

Among the contextual religious attitudes, pluralist approach to religion (.18) manifests a moderately strong association with openness to euthanasia in the case of Christians

As for the value of human dignity, viewing it as depending on merit has moderately strong association with openness to euthanasia in the case of all the three religious groups: Christians (r .21), Muslims (r .14) and Hindus (r .19). Among Muslims, intrinsic human dignity (r .17) also manifests moderately strong association with disposal of life by euthanasia. The positive relation between human dignity and openness to euthanasia is probably mediated by compassion felt for the extreme suffering of fellow human beings.

Disposal of Life by Abortion for Victim’s Sake

As shown in Table 2.4, only in the case of Muslims, personal religious attitudes have strong or moderately strong association with abortion for victim’s sake: belief in personal God (r .19), belief in non-personal God (r .34), belief in the existence of God (r .25), religious experience (r .33), experience of divine intervention (r .21), frequency of prayer (r .14), and religion’s influence on daily life (r .17). Personal religious attitude seem particularly relevant to Muslims’ favourableness to disposal of life by abortion for the sake of the affected mother and/or foetus.

Among the contextual religious attitudes, the integral transformative function of religion in the case of Muslims (r .17) and Hindus (r .26), and the cultural transformative function in the case of Hindus (r .16) manifest moderately strong association with disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake.

As regards approaches to religions, the exclusivist approach manifests moderately strong correlation with abortion for the sake of the victim in the case of Christians (r .14) and Muslims (r .28), so also the pluralist approach among Christians (r .22) and Hindus (r .16). Besides, for Muslims, trust in one’s own religion (r .15) has moderately strong association with disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake.

As for the value of human dignity, among Muslims viewing it as based on merit (r .15), on moral conduct (r. 22) and as intrinsic to the person (r. 20) manifest moderately strong association with disposal of life by abortion for the sake of the victim. In the case of Hindus, we find that moral dignity (r. 16) has moderately strong correlation with abortion for victim’s sake. Again, the understanding of human dignity emerges as particularly significant to Muslims in their openness to abortion for the sake of the affected mother and/or the unborn child.

Disposal of Life by Abortion for Psycho-Economic Reasons

Only in the case of Muslims we find three variables, namely, religious experience (r .15), participation in religious service (r .14), and the value of human dignity as based on merit (r .15), have moderately strong association with disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons. Overall, personal and contextual attitudes and the value of human dignity do not seem to be much relevant to the question of abortion for psycho-economic reasons.

Research Question 4

Which personal and religious characteristics and psychological and socio-political traits relate to non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

Examining the (non-)disposal of life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, for each of the three religious groups, we find some significant correlations with background variables (Table 2.5). We shall comment on the moderately strong correlations for each religious group, starting with death penalty and euthanasia, followed by abortion for victim’s sake and abortion for psycho-economic reasons.
Table 2.5

Correlations (Pearson’s r, 2-tailed) between dependent variables of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion and background variables

 

Non-disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Death Penalty

Euthanasia

Abortion: Victim’s sake

Abortion: psycho-economic reasons

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Personal characteristics

 Age

−.02

−.10*

−.04

.00

−.02

.07

−.03

−.20 **

−.12*

.01

−.10*

.02

 Sex (female 1; male 2)

−.09

−.16 **

−.14 **

.02

−.02

−.03

.07

−.18 **

−.02

−.10

.02

.06

 Father’s education

−.15 **

−.05

.02

.00

−.08

.02

−.06

−.03

.14**

−.13*

−.04

.05

 Mother’s education

−.14**

−.03

−.10*

−.02

−.04

.00

−.01

−.01

.05

−.09

−.03

−.01

Religious characteristics

 Father’s belief and faith

−.02

.12*

.02

.00

−.02

.01

−.03

.13**

.09

−.06

.04

.06

 Mother’s belief and faith

.05

.07

.05

.04

−.08

−.05

−.04

.15 **

.10

−.10

−.00

−.00

 Best friend’s belief and faith

.02

.09

.04

.05

−.10

.03

−.03

.13*

.00

−.12*

−.09

.03

 Father’s expectation to adopt his faith

−.01

.05

.02

.00

−.07

.02

−.01

.13*

.08

.00

−.00

−.03

 Mother’s expectation to adopt her faith

−.05

.07

.02

−.02

−.08

−.02

−.06

.13*

.04

−.05

.01

.01

 Interreligious contact

.03

.19**

−.04

.08

.12*

.01

.05

.10*

.08

−.11*

.12*

−.03

Psychological traits

 Right-wing authoritarianism

.01

.09

.14**

.02

.09

.03

−.05

.16 **

.11*

.02

−.03

−.02

 Social dominance orientation

−.01

.07

.16 **

.11*

.03

.04

−.07

.01

.02

.16 **

.25 **

.08

 Empathy

.12*

.12*

.12*

−.04

.01

.01

−.05

.19 **

.12*

−.01

.02

.02

Socio-political traits

 Interculturalism

.04

.12*

.05

.05

.13*

−.10*

.00

.07

.01

−.20 **

−.02

−.05

 Political orientation

−.07

.06

.03

.04

−.07

−.01

.17 **

.06

.13*

−.04

.12*

−.01

Correlations are significant at p < .00 (**) or p < .05 (*) level (2-tailed)

Interpretation of correlations: weak (r < .15), moderately strong (.15 ≤ r < .30) and strong (r ≥ .30) associations

Non-disposal of Life by Death Penalty

Examining the personal characteristics, we find that women among Muslims (r − .16) and Hindus (r − .14), and Christians whose father (r − .15) and mother (r − .14) have had lower level of education are more opposed to death penalty. It is significant that Muslim and Hindu women and Christians with less educated parents disagree more with death penalty.

As shown in Table 2.5, among religious characteristics, only interreligious contact (r .19) has moderately strong association with non-disposal of life by death penalty in the case of Muslims. It is significant that interreligious contact favours opposition to death penalty among Muslims.

When it comes to psychological traits, we find that Hindus approving right-wing authoritarianism (r .14) and social dominance orientation (r .16) have moderately strong association with non-disposal of life by death penalty. It appears that Hindus’ opposition to death penalty is enforced from above by elite.

Disposal of Life by Euthanasia

In the case of euthanasia, personal characteristics seem to be rather irrelevant. However, examining the religious characteristics and socio-political traits, we find that Muslims open to interreligious contact (r .12) and to interculturalism (r .13) are moderately open to disposal of life by euthanasia. In their case, interaction with other religions and cultures seems to make them favourable to euthanasia.

When it comes to psychological traits, Christians approving social dominance orientation (r .11) manifest weak favourableness to permitting euthanasia.

Disposal of Life by Abortion for Victim’s Sake

Examining the personal characteristics (Table 2.5), we find that among Muslims, younger respondents (r − .20) and women (r − .18), and among Hindus those whose father has had higher levels of education (r .14), are moderately open to abortion for victim’s sake. In a traditional Islamic context, it is understandable that women and younger persons should be favourable to abortion.

Among the religious characteristics, in the case of Muslims, father’s (r .13) and mother’s (r .15) belief and faith, and to some extent their expectation that their faith be adopted by their children (r .13), have moderate association with disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake. This is true also in the case of best friend’s belief and faith (r .13). Religious socialization seems to favour openness to abortion for the sake of the affected mother and/or the unborn child.

Among the psychological traits, in the case of Muslims, right-wing authoritarianism (r .16) and empathy (r .19) have moderately strong association with disposal of life by abortion for the sake of the victim. It is understandable that empathy should favour abortion on account of the condition of the mother and/or of the unborn child.

Among the socio-political traits, in the case of Christians, right-wing political orientation (r .17) has moderately strong association with disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake. This may result from the fact that the victim’s honour may be a vital aspect for the right-wing currents.

Disposal of Life by Abortion for Psycho-Economic Reasons

Examining the background variables, we find that social dominance orientation in the case of Christians (r .16) and Muslims (r .25) has moderately strong influence on permitting abortion for psycho-economic reasons. Social dominance is a psychological attitude that prevalently has an economic basis, and so it is understandable that it should be favourable to abortion for psycho-economic reasons. Instead, in the case of Christians, interculturalism (r − .20) has moderately strong negative influence on allowing abortion for psycho-economic reasons. In other words, openness to diverse cultural values makes Christians unfavourable to the disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons.

Research Question 5

Which independent variables (personal and contextual religious attitudes and valuing of human dignity) and background variables (personal and religious characteristics, and psychological and socio-political traits) emerge as predictors of non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion?

Table 2.6 presents the regression analyses of right to (dispose of) life among Christian, Muslim and Hindu respondents separately. We shall first present the impact of the variables on non-disposal of life by death penalty and then on the disposal of life by euthanasia and by abortion for victim’s sake and for psycho-economic reasons.
Table 2.6

Regression analyses of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion for Christian, Muslim and Hindu students separately

 

Non-disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Disposal of life by

Death Penalty

Euthanasia

Abortion: Victim’s sake

Abortion: psycho-economic reasons

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Chris

Mus

Hind

Personal religious attitudes

 Belief in personal god

−.22**

−.22**

−.06

 Belief in non-personal god

.05

.37**

.06

 Religious experiences

.00

.12*

−.02

.05

.24**

.02

   

 Experience of divine intervention

 Influence on daily life

−.07

.11*

.05

Contextual religious attitudes

 Integral transformative function

.22**

.17*

.12*

.04

−.12*

.23**

 Exclusivist approach to religions

.06

.22*

−.09

 Pluralist approach to religions

   

.15**

.03

.00

.22**

−.01

.13*

Value of human dignity

 Dignity of merit

.20*

.07

.19**

 Moral dignity

−.00

.17**

.13*

 Intrinsic human dignity

.00

.13*

−.04

Personal characteristics

 Age

−.04

−.09

−.13*

 Sex (female 1; male 2)

−.11*

−.11*

−.12*

 Father’s education

−.14*

−.05

.02

Religious characteristics

 Interreligious contact

.00

.16**

−.03

Psychological traits

 Social dominance orientation

−.02

.11*

.15**

.14*

.25**

.07

Socio-political traits

 Interculturalism

−.18**

−.02

−.04

 Political orientation

.14*

.00

.12*

R2

6%

12%

6%

7%

6%

4%

11%

27%

14%

6%

6%

1%

Adj R2

6%

10%

4%

6%

5%

3%

8%

25%

12%

5%

5%

0%

Standardised regression coefficients (β) are significant at p < .00 (**) or p < .05 (*) level

Non-disposal of Life by Death Penalty

For Christian respondents, the regression analysis of death penalty explains only a small amount of the variance (R2 6%; Adj. R2 6%). Among the independent variables, only the integral transformative function of religion (β .22) is a rather strong predictor of opposition to death penalty. It is significant that for Christian students, religion with its transformative function in the society can promote the non-disposability of life. Interestingly, while examining the background variables, we find that women (β − .11) and those whose fathers have had lower level of education (β − .14) tend to oppose death penalty.

For Muslim respondents, the regression analysis of death penalty explains about one tenth of the variance (R2 12%; Adj. R2 10%). Among the religious attitudes, we find that influence of religion on daily life (β .11) and the integral transformative function of religion (β .17) are rather moderate predictors of opposition to death penalty. The influence of religion on the society and on the day-to-day life of Muslims seem to reduce support for capital punishment. Among the background variables, women (β − .11) manifest surprisingly more opposition to death penalty than men and we observe that interreligious contact (β .16) and social dominance orientation (β .11) induce opposition to death penalty.

For Hindu respondents, only a small amount of variance of opposition to death penalty is explained (R2 6%; Adj. R2 4%). Among religious attitudes, the transformative function of religion (β .12) emerges as a moderate predictor of opposition to death penalty. As for Christians and Muslims, so too for Hindus the transformative function of religion can promote the non-disposability of life. Among the background variables, as in the case of Christians and Muslims, Hindu women (β − .12) are more opposed to death penalty, while social dominance orientation (β .15) emerges as rather moderate predictor of opposition to death penalty.

Overall, among religious factors the transformative function of religion seems to have some impact on the non-disposal of life in the case of all the three religious groups. We also find that women among the three religious groups are more opposed to death penalty. The impact of social dominance orientation in the case of Muslims and Hindus may refer to higher sensitivity of dominant elite groups with regard to death penalty. The explained variance suggest that the impact of these and other variables are stronger in the case of Muslims than that of Christians and Hindus.

Disposal of Life by Euthanasia

As can be seen in Table 2.6, in the case of Christian respondents, the variance of relative support of euthanasia is only explained for a small part by the four predictors we included (R2 7%; Adj. R2 6%). A pluralist approach to religion (β .15) and dignity of merit (β .20) induce support for euthanasia in case of unbearable and irreversible suffering.

For Muslim respondents, variance in support for euthanasia is somewhat explained by religious experiences (β .12) and intrinsic human dignity (β .13). Here too, the explanatory model is weak (R2 6%; Adj. R2 5%). It is surprising and rather puzzling that religious experience and the recognition of the intrinsic human dignity can favour the disposal of life by euthanasia. But as we mentioned earlier, among religious groups such as Jains, ‘euthanasia’ may even mark a profound religious experience.

For Hindu respondents, regression analysis of euthanasia explains only a small amount of the variance (R2 4%; Adj. R2 3%). Only the variable of human dignity as acknowledged by others (β .19) has some predictive value for permitting euthanasia.

As may be noted in the case of the religious groups, the recognition of patient’s dignity by others (for Christians and Hindus) and moral dignity (for Muslims) can favour disposal of life by euthanasia, most likely based on compassionate grounds. However, the explained variance suggest that religious and human dignity variables – mentioned above – have only little impact.

Disposal of Life by Abortion for Victim’s Sake

As shown in Table 2.6, for Christian respondents, the regression analysis of abortion for victim’s sake explains about one-tenth of the variance (R2 11%; Adj. R2 8%). Among the personal religious attitudes, belief in personal God (β − .22) has a rather strong negative impact. It means that belief in personal God reduces support for abortion even when the mother is a victim of rape or incest, and there is serious health problems to her and/or to the unborn child. Among the contextual religious attitudes, the pluralist approach to religions (β .22) positively contributes to greater openness to abortion for victim’s sake. Among socio-political traits, the right-wing political orientation (β .14) moderately predicts favourableness to abortion for the sake of the victim.

For Muslims, the regression analysis of abortion for victim’s sake explains about one-fourth of the variance (R2 27%; Adj. R2 25%). Among personal religious attitudes, belief in personal God (β − .22) has a rather strong negative impact on abortion for the sake of the victim, whereas belief in non-personal God (β .37) and religious experience (β .24) strongly predict favourableness to abortion. It is noteworthy that belief in God as personal or as non-personal has respectively unfavourable or favourable impact on the disposal of life by abortion. Among the contextual religious attitudes, the integral transformative function of religion has a negative moderate impact (β − .12), whereas the exclusivist approach to religion (β .22) moderately predicts allowing abortion for victim’s sake. It means that among Muslims, the transformative function of religion can challenge abortion for the sake of the victim, instead affirming the exclusive truth of their religion can favour disposal of life. Considering human dignity as depending on the moral behaviour of persons (β .17) also predicts more favourableness to abortion for the sake of victim.

For Hindu respondents, the regression analysis of abortion for victim’s sake explains about one-eighth of the variance (R2 14%; Adj. R2 12%). Among contextual religious attitudes, the integral transformative function of religion (β .23) has moderately strong impact on permitting abortion for victim’s sake. Besides, the pluralist approach to religion (β .13) and viewing human dignity as moral dignity (β .13) emerge as weak predictors of abortion for the sake of victim. Unlike the case of Muslims, for Hindus the transformative function of religion and the pluralist approach to religion can favour the disposal of life by abortion, particularly when the moral dignity of the victim is involved.

Overall, we find that quite a number of religious factors induce or reduce agreement with abortion for victim’s sake. There are more relevant religious variables in the case of Muslims than that of Christians and Hindus. We shall discuss the significance of some of these variables in the next section.

Disposal of Life by Abortion for Psycho-Economic Reasons

As shown in Table 2.6, for Christian respondents, the regression analysis of abortion for psycho-economic reasons explains only a small amount of the variance (R2 6%; Adj. R2 5%). We find that only two background variables have some impact. The psychological trait of social dominance orientation (β .14) supports more abortion for psycho-economic reasons. Instead, interculturalism (β − .18) reduces agreement with abortion for psycho-economic reasons. The acceptance that there is status difference between people in society seems to favour disposal of life for psycho-economic reasons, while interaction with other cultures, perhaps of Western Christianity – since Indian Muslims and Hindus show significantly more support for abortion for psycho-economic reasons – makes Christian students less favourable to disposal of life for psycho-economic reasons.

For Muslim respondents, the regression analysis of abortion for psycho-economic reasons explains only a small amount of the variance (R2 6%; Adj. R2 5%). Only the psychological trait of social dominance orientation (β .25) rather strongly predicts openness to abortion for psycho-economic reasons. In this regard, none of the variables seem to have any impact on the Hindu students’ stand.

It is significant that for all the three religious groups none of the variables of religious attitudes and value of human dignity have impact on the disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons. It appears that among minority Islamic and Christian communities, openness to social dominance, namely, the acceptance of status difference between people in society, seems to favour abortion for psycho-economic reasons.

Discussion and Conclusion

In this final section, we make a summary of the findings and comment on the salient ones, keeping in focus the objective of our research, namely, to verify the impact of religion on the (non-)disposability of life. We shall do so by dealing with the opposing trends of (non-)disposal of life by death penalty, euthanasia and abortion, and the impact of religious attitudes and understanding of human dignity on them.

Tendency with Regard to (Non-)Disposal of Life

Our intention was to probe the attitudes of students with regard to the (non-)disposal of life in the cases of death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. Factor analyses brought to light four rather reliable factors: non-disposal of life by death penalty and disposal of life by euthanasia, abortion for victim’s sake, and abortion for psycho-economic reasons.

Non-disposal of life by death penalty refers to the case of a convicted criminal. The dispute is whether sentence should reach the level capital punishment. The statements to which our respondents indicated their level of agreement were the following: death penalty should strictly be prohibited; and life sentence should always be commuted to life imprisonment. The scores therefore express the extent of opposition to capital punishment. We found that students are opposed to death penalty and that there is no significant differences between Christian, Muslim and Hindu respondents. It is noteworthy that the students tend to affirm the non-disposability of life even though death penalty continues to be practiced – although very rarely – in India. Such pro-life stand of the students may be attributed to the current international debate on abolishing death penalty.

Disposal of life by euthanasia refers to the termination of life in a situation of severe illness and suffering. The question posed to the students was whether a person could be permitted to end his/her life when suffering becomes unbearable and irreversible, and when palliative care is exhausted. In their response, the students show positive uncertainty to disposal of life in such instances, with Muslims showing significantly less agreement than Christians and Hindus. The question of (active) euthanasia seems to raise a tension between the value of life in itself and the quality of life amidst agonizing suffering. The students’ doubtful stand with slight agreement to voluntary euthanasia seems to indicate that pro-choice trend is gaining ground in a context where actively ending one’s life is not so rare.

Disposal of life by abortion refers to the elimination of new life in the mother’s womb. Factor analysis revealed that students distinguish between abortion for victim’s sake and abortion for psycho-economic reasons. The results indicate that the students tend to approve abortion for victim’s sake without significant differences between Christians, Muslims and Hindus. It means that students tend to be pro-choice in circumstances of rape and incest, when the mother’s life is at risk, or when the foetus is affected by a serious defect. Instead, in the case of abortion for psycho-economic reasons, we find that Christian students tend to disagree, whereas Muslim and Hindu students show positive uncertainty. In the opinion of the students, particularly of Christians, abortion for psycho-economic reasons does not seem justifiable.

Overall, the three religious groups manifest opposition to disposal of life by death penalty, and an uncertain openness to disposal of life by euthanasia and abortion for victim’s sake. The high standard distributions (i.e. around a full point on a five point Likert scale) indicate that there are quite differing opinions among the members of each religious group. Nevertheless, there are also some significant differences between the religious groups. As regards euthanasia, the tendency among Christians and Hindus is openness to disposal of life, while Muslims tend to be uncertain. As regards abortion for psycho-economic reasons, the tendency among Christians is non-disposal of life and the tendency among Hindus and Muslims is an uncertain openness to disposal of life. However, as a whole the intergroup differences are rather small against the range of 5-point Likert scales.

A normative appraisal of these findings implies an assessment of the right to (dispose of) life in the extreme circumstances we operationalized. The right to (dispose of) life, brings up, among others, the following fundamental questions regarding the quality of life and its ownership: When is life truly human? Who owns human life? Concerning the first question, some would hold that human life is not a question of degree. There is life or there isn’t; and if there is life, it deserves absolute respect and protection independently of any further qualification. Among religious traditions, the Catholic Church – as expounded earlier – affirms that absolute respect for human life from conception to its natural end is the condition for the exercise of all other human rights (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2004, n. 155). Deliberate acts that do not have absolute respect for life are simply wrong, as respect for human life is founded on the dignity proper to the person embedded in the natural law (VS n. 50). That there are no degrees in life, and that quality levels are irrelevant to absolute respect for it, also mean that life begins from the moment the ovum is fertilized (CDF 1974, n. 12) and only ends when the spiritual soul separates from the body at the moment of death (CCC n. 366). Such a vision implies that persistent vegetative state and even ‘cerebral death’ do not represent absence of life. For, “body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together” (VS n. 40). Nevertheless, there are other currents, which hold that human life may be so compromised by the privation of dignity that it may not be considered human anymore. In other words, unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement may lead a patient or the onlookers to judge such a life as not worth living. Something similar is at stake when a woman’s pregnancy results from rape or incest, or when medical professionals anticipate serious danger to the mother and/or serious defect in the foetus. Such considerations have led several countries (see above) to vote abortion and euthanasia laws, and to maintain or resume death penalty.

This brings up the related question: Who owns life as to be able to dispose of it? Is human life owned by the individual? Does society at large have a say on the ownership of life? Does the ownership of life go beyond human beings’ capacities as to make people ultimately unqualified judge over life, even one’s own? Again, answers to these may take opposing directions. Appealing to the categorical principles of Immanuel Kant (1785) some affirm the absolute non-disposability of life, while others highlighting the principle of John Stuart Mill (1859; 1998) that each person is autonomous or free to pursue his or her own good without depriving or impeding others to do the same, express the concern for quality of life.

In an attempt to reconcile absolute respect for life15 on the one hand, and concern for the quality of life on the other, as well as to reconcile heteronomy on the one hand, and autonomy concerning life-ownership on the other, Schotsmans speaks of double decentring. The first decentring refers to the fundamental inaccessibility of the human self to itself, and the second concerns the intersubjectivity of the human person. According to Schotsmans (2008, 278f), “they give emphasis to the importance of an axiological interpretation of the notions ‘sanctity’ and ‘quality’ of life. The first mode of decentrement can bring us toward a more moderate view of autonomy and self-determination; a view that makes clear the ontological fact that the human self is not as transparent and controllable, as advocates of autonomy suggest. […] Another ground to reject the overpowering role some want autonomy to have, has its origin in Judeo-Christianity. From this perspective, autonomy is a necessary condition for the fulfilment of creatural solidarity. […] The human autonomy we are required to respect, therefore, cannot result in an absolute dominion over one’s own life but has to be understood in a broader framework that acknowledges both the intrapersonal limits and interpersonal boundaries to the sanctity of autonomy”. In this vein, Joas (2013, 91) underscores that a certain ‘moral decentring’ is inherent to the Christian faith that calls us to view the world from the perspective of others, particularly the “least of my brothers” (Mt 25:40). It means that ‘transcendent’ and ‘relational’ anthropology (Joas 2013, 154), namely, person as constituted by relation (Bordignon 2013), can help overcome the contrast between ‘absolute respect for life itself’ and ‘quality of life’, between ‘heteronomy’ and ‘autonomy’, between pro-life and pro-choice concerns.

Impact of Religious Variables on (Non-)Disposal of Life

The primary aim of this study is to examine the role that religions play in this all-important area of right to life. As shown in the conceptual model, personal religious attitudes (comprising beliefs, experiences and practices) and contextual religious attitudes (such as functions of religion, approach to religions, and trust in religion) were hypothesized to induce or reduce the (non-)disposal of life.

Examining the religious variables that could contribute to the non-disposal of life by death penalty, we find that a number of them have moderately strong association in one or more of the religious traditions: belief in (non-)personal God, religious experience, religion’s influence on daily life, integral transformative and cultural conformity functions, pluralist approach to religion, and trust in one’s own and others’ religion. However, it is the integral transformative function of religion that moderately predicts objection to death penalty in the case of all the three religions. This is significant, given that religious traditions in the past have supported death penalty for various reasons. Among Muslims, we find that religion’s influence on daily life and interreligious contact have some predictive value in opposing death penalty.

A number of religious variables have moderately strong association with disposal of life by euthanasia particularly among Muslims. Belief in a (non-)personal God, religious experience, experience of divine intervention, frequency of prayer, integrative transformative function of religion and exclusivist approach to religion, are positively related with Muslims’ openness to euthanasia. However, only religious experience induces to some extent Muslim students’ approval of euthanasia in the regression analysis. Among Christian students, pluralist approach to religions has some influence on their openness to euthanasia.

When it comes to the disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake, we find rather strong influence of religious attitudes among Muslims: belief in a personal God and integral transformative function of religion reduce agreement with abortion for victim’s sake; while belief in a non-personal God, religious experiences and exclusivist approach to religions induce agreement with abortion for victim’s sake. It is interesting to note the bivalent roles, namely pro-choice and pro-life, that religious attitudes play concerning abortion. While belief in a personal God reduces agreement with abortion even in extreme conditions of the mother, the exclusivist approach to religion favours agreement with abortion; the latter may have some affinity to honour killing practiced in some Islamic contexts. Among Christian students, we find a similar pattern of influence. Belief in a personal God reduces agreement with abortion for the sake of the affected mother and/or unborn child, while the pluralist approach to religion predicts approval of abortion for victim’s sake. In the case of Hindus, the integral transformative function and pluralist approach to religion have some influence in the direction of more favourableness to disposal of life by abortion for victim’s sake.

When it comes to disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons, the results show that none of the religious attitudes has predictable value in the case of the three religious groups.

Overall, we find that diverse elements of the religious attitudes contribute to the (non-)disposability of life. Belief in a personal God is a predictor that reduces agreement with abortion for the victim’s sake among Christians and Muslims. Belief in a non-personal God induces agreement with abortion for the victim’s sake only among Muslims. Integral transformative function predicts disapproval of death penalty in the case of all the three religious groups but also predicts Hindus’ approval of abortion for victim’s sake. Pluralist approach to religion induces agreement with euthanasia and abortion for victim’s sake particularly in the case of Christians. Overall, the total explained variance is not very high (with exception for abortion for victim’s sake among Muslims and, to a lesser degree, among Hindus). This means that religion does not play a pivotal role in the ethical judgements concerning the right to life among our respondents. However, when religion plays a role, its influence depends on the specific issues at stake, and on the specific religious traditions. Religion therefore can offer some basis for both ‘sacrality’ and ‘quality’ of life discourse supporting pro-life and pro-choice currents respectively. The influences of religious factors need to be further explored with regard to specific bio-ethical cases, against the background of the specific teaching of the religions involved, but also against the background of the social and economic circumstances in which the adherents of these religious traditions live.

Impact of the Value of Human Dignity on (Non-)Disposal of Life

From a secular perspective, the value of human dignity is considered in three different ways, namely, as value acknowledged by others (dignity of merit), as depending on the moral behaviour of the person (moral dignity), and as proper to the person (intrinsic human dignity).

These three understanding of human dignity seem to favour the non-disposal of life by death penalty among Muslims. It means that in their case, overall value of human dignity has some influence on the opposition to death penalty. In the case of Christian students, acknowledging the moral dignity of the person favours non-disposability of life by death penalty. It means that Christians particularly oppose death penalty for reasons of moral behaviour. Among Hindus, the dignity of merit acknowledged by others tends to disapprove death penalty. However, in none of the cases value of human dignity has predictive value.

With regard to disposal of life by euthanasia, the three notions of human dignity have some association in the case of one or the other group. For our respondents, human dignity seems to be associated with dignity of the dying person rather than with safeguarding life in contexts of unbearable suffering. The regression analyses show that more agreement with euthanasia is explained by dignity of merit among Christians and Hindus, and intrinsic human dignity among Muslims.

Concerning abortion for victim’s sake, more agreement can be found among Muslims who score higher on our human dignity items, and this is true for moral dignity in the case of Hindus. The respect for human dignity takes here the form of compassion for the mother who is a victim of rape or incest, or whose life is threatened because of pregnancy or whose unborn child is marked by serious defect. In the regression analysis, moral dignity induces support for abortion for victim’s sake among Muslims and Hindus.

As for disposal of life by abortion for psycho-economic reasons, we find that only the dignity of merit has some association with Muslims’ approval of abortion for such reasons, but it does not emerge as a predictor.

Overall, we find relatively strong associations between the three understanding of human dignity and the right (to dispose) of life. However, they do not emerge as strong predictors. Only the support for euthanasia and abortion for victim’s sake is somewhat explained by dignity of merit and moral dignity respectively. In these cases, the results are also somewhat surprising: if the value of human dignity plays a role, it contributes to more agreement with euthanasia and abortion for victim’s sake. For our respondents, dignity is associated with the dignity of dying person who suffers and asks to end his or her life, or with the dignity of the woman who is pregnant because of rape or incest, whose health may be endangered or the foetus she carries may present a serious defect. Only in the case of Muslims, intrinsic human dignity has some impact on the disposal of life by euthanasia. Surprisingly, the notion of intrinsic human dignity, clearly affirmed in the Catholic tradition (VS n. 50; Brugger 2014, 28), does not seem to influence Christians’ stand on life issues.

In conclusion, based on the findings and the foregoing discussion we may underscore the following. Firstly, it is seemingly difficult to overcome the differences between approaches that stress ‘autonomy in life-ownership’ and ‘quality of life’ on the one hand, and on the other, those that stress the limits of autonomous decisions and ‘absolute respect for life’. This suggests the need for integrating the ‘sanctity’ and ‘quality’ of life discourses by recognizing the fundamental inaccessibility of human self to itself and the constitutive intersubjectivity of the human person (Schotsmans 2008). Secondly, from a Christian perspective, by rearticulating the understanding of human being as created in the image of God and as children of God, we may rediscover the significance of the human soul and the gift of life. “The notion that we are made in the image of God becomes the idea of a divine essence in every human being: his immortal soul. The notion that we are the children of God becomes the idea that our life is a gift, which like every gift incurs certain obligation that limit our disposal over ourselves” (Joas 2013, 143; cf. 140–172). Thirdly, in a multicultural and multi-religious world marked also by secularization, intercultural and interreligious interaction can give rise to the value generation and generalization that the right to life represents. And lastly, we may conclude with Joas (2013, 190f) that a combination three things are necessary to fully realize the sacralisation of the person with respect to human rights in general and right to life in particular: sensitivity to experiences of injustice and violence, rational justification of the claim of universality of crucial values, and codifications of rights through national and international institutions. Our findings suggest that religions – together with secular currents – can play an important role in promoting values and practices by providing the meta-ethical basis for ‘sacredness of/respect for’ and ‘quality of’ human life.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    In defining the term ‘euthanasia’ a number of facets need to be taken into account: the motive and the method of treatment, the will of the patient, and the role of the physician. (a) In the first place, considering the motive and the method of treatment, distinction is generally made between active, direct, or positive euthanasia and passive, indirect, or negative euthanasia. In the former case, the treatment of the physician, which aims at eliminating unbearable suffering, causes the death of the patient, and in the latter, the medical professional deliberately withholds or withdraws the medical treatment, thus indirectly causing death. The latter, namely, the passive euthanasia, has to be distinguished from ‘refusal of therapeutic obstinacy’, i.e., not insisting on useless and ineffective therapy in the absence of alternatives, with the mere possibility of prolonging the end of life. (b) Secondly, taking into account the will of the patient, distinction has to be made between voluntary euthanasia and non-voluntary euthanasia. The former occurs when the patient consciously chooses to end his/her life; the latter when the patient cannot yet or cannot anymore consciously choose to end his/her life – although anticipating it in a ‘biological testament’. When the patient is capable of making a choice but is not consulted or has expressed himself/herself contrary to euthanasia, if it is practiced in the interest of the patient, to terminate unbearable suffering, this would be termed involuntary euthanasia. (c) Considering the role of the physician, euthanasia has to be distinguished from physician-assisted suicide (PAS): in the case of euthanasia, it is physician who administers the means of death, and in the case of assisted suicide it is the patient’s self-administration of drugs supplied by a physician that brings about death (Magni 2011, 83; Kelly 1994, 348; Merlo 2009, 339–348).

  2. 2.

    Natural abortion (miscarriage) is distinguished from procured abortion; it is the latter, namely, intentional interruption of pregnancy with drugs or some mechanical device, which raises ethical questions (Magni 2011, 47; Hostetler and Coulter 2007, 1).

  3. 3.
  4. 4.

    The 1992 edition of the CCC does not contain this view. According to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, chairman of the commission that wrote and revised the CCC, there are substantial changes in the section on punishment, particularly in n. 2265–2267. The expression “not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty” is omitted in 1997 editio tipica (Brugger 2014, xiii, 22).

  5. 5.

    Address of Pope Francis to participants in the meeting promoted by the Pontifical Council for promoting the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeches/2017/october.index.html (accessed on 27 October 2017).

  6. 6.

    When dealing with “culture of death”, while abortion and euthanasia are mentioned by the pope, death penalty is bracketed out.

  7. 7.
  8. 8.
  9. 9.

    The last execution to take place in India was the July 30, 2015 hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted of financing the 1993 Mumbai bombings. The three executions prior this were: the February 8, 2013 hanging of Muhammad Afzal, convicted of plotting the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament; the hanging of 2008 Mumbai attack gunman Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab on November 21, 2012; and the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee in 2004 for the murder and rape of a 14-year old girl: https://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=India (accessed on 14 September 2017).

  10. 10.
  11. 11.

    Further amendments were made: The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, No. 34 of 1971, as amended by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, No. 64 of 2002. The Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, No. 57 of 1994, and the Pre-natal Diagnostic Technologies (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Act, 2002, No. 14 of 2003 (see discussion in Crawford 1996, 234–237).

  12. 12.

    For further documentation, see http://www.rp.theologie.uni-wuerzburg.de/research/religion_and_human_rights_2012_2019/ (accessed 14 September 2017). This research project builds on the previous one: Religion and Human Rights (1997–2011). For findings referring to Tamil Nadu, see Van der Ven and Anthony (2008) and Anthony (2013).

  13. 13.

    Factor analysis brought the two items representing spiritual experience (i.e., people say that they have had an experience of profound inner peace; that they have had an experience of oneness with all things) and the two representing faith experience (i.e., people say that their faith has often helped them not to lose courage in particular situations; that their religion gives them a certainty in life that they otherwise would not have) into one meaningful and reliable factor ‘religious experience’ (Cronbach’s alpha .72).

  14. 14.

    In the factor analysis of eight items, factors representing two meaningful functions of religion emerged: integral transformative function (Cronbach’s alpha .69) and cultural conformity function (Cronbach’s alpha .39). The integral transformative function included six items: religions should try to influence public opinion on social problems; should publicly stand up for the underclass; should take a joint responsibility with the State for the national culture; should take public responsibility for the societal development; should take responsibility for their members’ spiritual growth; and should create places for deep spiritual experiences. The cultural conformity function instead included two items: religions should always keep up with current social trends; and should go along with changing ideas in society.

  15. 15.

    Drutchas (1998) is of the opinion that for a fruitful dialogue in a pluralistic world the notion of ‘respect for human life’ is more useful than the principle of ‘sanctity or sacredness of life’.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Practical TheologySalesian Pontifical UniversityRomeItaly
  2. 2.Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious StudiesRadboud University NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands

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