by Jon Yorke (ed). Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2010. 464pp. Hardback. £75.00/$144.95. ISBN: 9780754677611.

Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email: Matwell [at]


At first glance one might expect a book entitled THE RIGHT TO LIFE AND THE VALUE OF LIFE to focus on abortion issues. Indeed if it had been published in the United States and featured the work of American scholars, that expectation might be borne out. That supposition shows how much the terminology of life has come to be monopolized by a single issue in the United States. This collection, however, has a much broader focus which includes matters of war, end of life decisions, ethical choices involving health care, capital punishment, and reproductive technologies, bounded by discussions of life issues within the context of political theory. Seventeen scholars from a variety of disciplines and perspectives have contributed to the volume. Not surprisingly, for this reader, the articles varied in interest. A few seemed extremely specialized, although none was inappropriate for inclusion in such an anthology.

The concept of life has many facets. One may speak of biological life, of political life, of life as a medical term or as a subject for philosophical inquiry. Jon Yorke, as editor of THE RIGHT TO LIFE AND THE VALUE OF LIFE argues that the many meanings of the term require a multidisciplinary approach, thus the contributors include law professors, ethicists, political philosophers, sociologists, and scientists. He further asserts in the introduction that far from being black and white, questions about the right to life and the value of life have become increasingly nuanced, partly because technology has altered the possibilities of extending or prolonging life, and also because governments and individuals have increasing opportunities to make decisions regarding life and death. There is wide disagreement over the scope of the right to life. For example, the state’s duty to protect life includes both the responsibility to prevent the unlawful deprivation of life and the requirement to take reasonable measures to protect life. Such policies and decisions require a great deal of information and transparency. This volume may be seen as an effort to illuminate those difficult questions.

The first section of THE RIGHT TO LIFE includes articles dealing with theoretical approaches to life and death. A chapter by Mark Olssen discusses life as continuance, a pursuit of well-being but always within a political context. He seems to be arguing that the continuance of life involves the ability to flourish and prosper. The determination of life as good, bad, or indifferent is connected, it seems, with engagement, not just with survival. Life as good, bad, or indifferent (as determined by “temporary closures around norms”) guides the legitimate behavior of government – [*314] defining what the state should promote or forbid and what decisions should be left to the individual without the intervention of a government. The second chapter, a critique of Agamben’s HOMO SACER by Andrew Norris, seems a particularly challenging piece as it first assumes a depth of familiarity with the Italian political philosopher’s work and then refutes Agamben’s analysis. The third theoretical chapter, “The Value of Life: Somatic Ethics and the Spirit of Biocapital” by Nicolas Rose is an argument for the inclusion of ethical considerations of “health” in its broadest sense in the search for life enhancing technologies and the financial rewards that accompany such discoveries. The final piece in the section on theory is both creative and accessible: “How We Value Life: George Bailey and the Life Not Worthy of Being Lived” uses the classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” as an illustration of how two concepts, the Sanctity of Life and the Quality of Life, may be synthesized rather than seen in opposition. One suggests that life has an inherent value as an absolute good. The second formulation holds that life is valuable as it allows one to do things of value. Stephen Smith argues that one can analyze the fictional life of George Bailey to demonstrate that a life may embody both values. Of all the articles in the volume, this one could easily be incorporated into a classroom discussion of how to think about right to life issues.

Part II: The Vicissitudes of Armed Conflict and Detention includes three chapters examining the right to take life in armed combat, the rights of detainees in armed conflicts, and issues surrounding the death of prisoners in custody. As these sections involve applications of the right to life, they are generally presented with practical examples. Agnieszka Jachee-Neale examines death in combat through the application of Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Laws. The former regulates the behavior of parties to the conflict, the latter focuses on individual rights and duties. The chapter raises a challenging and important question about who should be held responsible for the deaths of civilians during warfare. Is the soldier on the ground accountable for the “collateral damage” or should blame extend farther up the chain of command to those who make the strategic decisions? Susan Breau uses the example of the death of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi killed while detained by the British armed forces, as a case study of the protection of human rights regimes. She further explores the issue of responsibility in a way that is equally applicable to the deaths of detainees in the custody of American troops. Under human rights law, when deaths occur during detention the detaining power must be able to explain how the death occurred lawfully. Breau argues that the principles laid out at Nuremberg that held the highest civilian and military leaders responsible seem to be “fading into obscurity.” A chapter by Caroline Fournet “At the Hands of the State: When Arrest and Imprisonment Prove Fatal,” considers deaths of prisoners who are in civilian custody. She notes that there is little public interest or outcry when inmates die in prison. She connects inhumane and degrading treatment with the right to life, as individuals should be protected against attacks on their physical integrity that would put their lives at risk. Looking particularly at French prisons and their overcrowding, Fournet raises [*315] the issue of “self-inflicted” deaths in custody especially in light of the inhumane conditions that may contribute to inmate suicide.

Part III, headed The Denunciation of the Death Penalty, includes three essays. “International Criminal Justice and the Death Penalty” by Steven Freeland mentions, this time approvingly, another deviation from the precedents of Nuremburg, the abandonment of the death penalty even for atrocities. International Criminal Tribunals created to deal with genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were not permitted to hand down death sentences. He notes that although the tide of change favors the complete abolition of capital punishment, it has not yet been formally ended in international law as the execution of Saddam Hussein revealed. Jon Yorke, who edited the volume, contributed a piece entitled “The Right to Life and the Abolition of the Death Penalty in the Council of Europe.” He argues that the right to life was a fundamental element in the debates regarding the end of capital punishment in Europe as the nations came to agree that even the state does not have the right to take the life of an individual. However, he notes that abolition is not complete, but an ongoing project as Article 2(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, unless it is amended, still seems to allow for the death penalty. The final capital punishment article, “The Death Penalty and Russia,” explains the process whereby the death penalty may still be possible in Russia although a moratorium has existed since 1996 when Russia joined the Council of Europe. The sanction is quite popular with a majority of people in Russia and the Duma has refused to abolish it by legislation. However, the Russian Constitutional Court has ruled that the death penalty may not be reintroduced. Nonetheless, Bill Bowring asserts that the future of capital punishment in Russia remains uncertain and its demise is not irreversible.

In Part IV, Medical Countenance at the End of Life, one chapter deals with assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, two others with the separation of conjoined twins. Although the latter topic is undoubtedly of great interest to medical ethicists, the issue would arise rarely in reality. On the other hand, assisted suicide is a question with wide political and social implications. David Benatar addresses both assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia with one of the book’s most fascinating formulations of the right to life. He asserts that both procedures are morally acceptable and should be legal because the right to life includes the option of waiving the right. He also dispenses with the slippery slope argument, that if the right to end a life is permissible in some circumstances, soon non-voluntary euthanasia will become prevalent. The danger of abuse is not, he maintains, a reason not to recognize a right. Elizabeth Wicks and Helen Watt address whether the separation of conjoined twins with the inevitable death of one twin constitutes an abuse of the right to life. Both consider a British case Re A that involved girls called Mary and Jodie. There the court had to determine whether to perform an operation that would save Jodie’s life but would certainly kill Mary, the weaker twin. Wicks ultimately finds that the procedure was justified. Watt reaches a different conclusion, that if the end was justified, the means was not. [*316]

The final section, Access to Medical Treatment and the Preservation of (New) Life, deals with the availability of health care and reproductive choice. Joanna Gibson focuses on the need for multicultural approaches to the information about and access to medical decisions and procedures. Ayo Wahlberg examines the many social and cultural pressures that lead Chinese couples to seek fertility treatments in “Assessing Vitality: Infertility and ‘Good Life’ in Urban China.” She makes the claim that even with the One Child Only policy in China, infertile couples experience strong feelings of failure to achieve the good life. The last chapter by Kerstin Klein on embryonic stem cell research in China presents several difficulties. The very awkward grammar and syntax seem to suggest that the essay was translated into (non-colloquial) English. Klein appears to be claiming that embryonic stem cells are a part of the “imaginary of life,” and that their destruction constitutes a “willful destruction of human life” (p.418). This extreme position does not seem consistent with the nuanced arguments of the majority of articles in this collection.

As is the case with many anthologies there is great variety among the selections in THE RIGHT TO LIFE AND THE VALUE OF LIFE. In this instance not only do the chapters vary in topic but they vary greatly in accessibility. Some would only be appreciated by specialists, others could be introduced to undergraduate students. The wide gaps in the appeal and utility of the chapters make it difficult to identify exactly who the appropriate audience for this book would be.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Mary W. Atwell.