Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 295-308

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

“Sanctity-of-Life“—A Bioethical Principle for a Right to Life?

  • Heike BaranzkeAffiliated withDepartment of Catholic Theology, University of Bonn Email author 


For about five decades the phrase “sanctity-of-life“ has been part of the Anglo-American biomedical ethical discussion related to abortion and end-of-life questions. Nevertheless, the concept’s origin and meaning are unclear. Much controversy is based on the mistaken assumption that the concept denotes the absolute value of human life and thus dictates a strict prohibition on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. In this paper, I offer an analysis of the religious and philosophical history of the idea of “sanctity-of-life.” Drawing on biblical texts and interpretation as well as Kant’s secularization of the concept, I argue that “sanctity” has been misunderstood as an ontological feature of biological human life, and instead locate the idea within the historical virtue-ethical tradition, which understands sanctification as a personal achievement through one’s own actions.


Sanctity-of-life v. quality-of-life Value of life Virtue ethics Theory of moral agency Immanuel Kant Secularization