WHAT seem to be two very different issues - abortion and euthanasia - provide a common basis for thinking about the sanctity of life. Both raise legal and moral questions, and no consensus has yet been reached in either debate. Unfortunately, abortion and euthanasia - or so-called mercy killing - trigger strong emotional reaction. A recent United States Supreme Court hearing in a Missouri abortion case brought an out-of-court backdrop of vocal demands, including public demonstrations by pro-lifers in favor of outlawing abortion. Pro-choice advocates just as loudly called for the relaxing of state restraints on the ``privacy'' rights of women in choosing whether to terminate a pregnancy.
To many, abortion is murder, and those who engage in it should be punished as criminals. To many others, however, abortion is a matter of individual determination, which should be left to a person or a family rather than the state.
The case now before the high court could alter standards set in the 1973 landmark ruling, Roe v. Wade. The decision drew guidelines that place no restrictions on abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, but allow states to limit the practice later on.
It is likely that the present Supreme Court, which is split ideologically, won't arrive at a sweeping decision that would either outlaw abortion or ratify its constitutionality. A ruling in the Missouri case, however, will almost certainly bring some refinement to the Roe decision - in terms of how far a state may go in setting standards without guaranteed individual freedoms.
Further litigation is a given. The public view on the issue, as well as the legal one, is still coalescing. Most opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans oppose abortion on moral and religious grounds. Yet most would allow it in certain circumstances, including situations of rape or where it could save the life of the mother.
Courts are loath to deal with theological questions, such as whether a fetus is a person. This point, however, has surfaced in the Missouri case, although it is not likely to be resolved.
The issue of euthanasia also concerns the sanctity of life and is just now beginning to appear on the legal scene. An Illinois case brought it into the spotlight recently with a murder indictment against a young father. The man removed life-support systems from his 16-month-old son, while holding hospital workers at bay with a gun.
Rudy Linares says his was an act of love, because his son was comatose and had little chance of recovery. Those who support what he did - including the immediate family - consider his act one of bravery and conviction. Others insist that it is murder and must be punished to discourage others from taking human life into their own hands, for whatever reasons.
Here again both public opinion and the courts are divided. Active mercy killing - such as shooting or poisoning a person diagnosed as terminally ill - is generally rejected by society. There appears to be less public opposition to denying sustenance or special apparatus to a severely ill or deformed adult or child, especially if the individual himself or loved ones make that decision.
Courts have adjudicated the issue in different ways. In Florida, for example, in a highly publicized case, a guilty verdict was handed down to a man who fatally shot his wife of more than 50 years because he could no longer bear to see her suffer a crippling disease. A judge then sentenced him to life in prison, although the jury recommended leniency. In Michigan, however, a medical doctor was given five years' probation after fatally poisoning an elderly woman. And in California, murder charges against two physicians who had withdrawn life support from a patient were ultimately dropped.
The legal ramifications of abortion and euthanasia will probably never be fully resolved. There would be enormous value to the debate, however, if it fostered a broader examination of the value and sanctity of life - and perhaps a higher definition of what constitutes existence.
Courts, medical authorities, scholars, and even journalists tend to confine the subject to the physical realm. The real answers transcend this limitation.