Friday, August 21, 2009

Aliens, 'District 9' and the pro-life view

Last weekend I saw the new science fiction movie "District 9" from producer Peter Jackson. R-rated and very unpleasant, the film nonetheless says something important and relevant to our current moral struggles.

"District 9" tells of a segregated community of aliens living in slum-like conditions on Earth. Some of these aliens are lethally experimented on for science and profit. Human agents kill gestating alien offspring by the handful ("abortions," they call them) to limit the alien population. Researchers plan to harvest valuable parts from a human who now has alien DNA.

The viewer knows that much of what goes on in "District 9" is wrong, and there are clear parallels in history. As one reviewer puts it: "It holds echoes of some of humanity's most shameful, legalized crimes against itself: Blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. Jews in Nazi Germany. American Indians in the early years of the United States. History shows us how frighteningly easy it can be to marginalize people who look or act differently from us."

Actions in "District 9" violate the equal dignity of persons (i.e., the pro-life view) -- the same principle at stake in past (slavery, the Holocaust) and current (abortion, embryo-destructive research) crimes against humanity.

This may seem odd because we typically describe that foundational principle as "human dignity" or "human equality" or the "sanctity of human life" -- and the aliens in "District 9" aren't human. So how is it that the pro-life position condemns atrocities committed against aliens?

Philosopher Francis Beckwith explains:
The pro-life position does not lead to what certain animal rights proponents call "speciesism," the belief that all human life is sacred and/or special simply because it belongs to the species Homo sapiens. Just as racism is arbitrary because color and ethnicity are irrelevant to assessing a human being's intrinsic worth, those who charge pro-lifers with speciesism argue that preference for the species Homo sapiens is just as arbitrary. But this charge is a red herring. For the pro-life position is based on the personal nature of human beings and the presence of that nature from the moment a human being comes into existence regardless of whether it has the present exercisable capacity for, or is currently engaging in, personal acts. Consequently if another species exists, whether in this world or in another (such as Klingons and Vulcans of Star Trek lore), which possesses a personal nature from the moment any of its individual members come into being, then pro-lifers would seek to have those creatures protected from unjustified homicide as well.
All human beings are persons by nature and thus are entitled to full moral respect and protection. It could be that there are persons of other species, like the aliens in "District 9" -- but we don't know of any.