Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hitting Us At Our Weakest

I suppose I shouldn't be, but I am continually amazed by the conclusions our society reaches about human life. Exhibit #1: Recently, Peter Singer's blatant call for the legalization of infanticide has regained popular traction after the idea oafter-birth abortion became mainstreamedHere is the core argument:
[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk...merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” 
There has been some criticism within the media, but it's been a cautious criticism:  most people don't like the idea at all, but as it pushes them to the logical conclusions of their ethics, they start to stumble a bit. The author of the article above, after saying he believes something changes when the baby is born and achieves autonomy, adds, "But I also think that the value of the unborn human increases throughout its development..."  That's a tough position to defend. Perhaps that explains why the article concludes with some questions for other pro-choice hard-liners, questions which the author carefully avoids answering.

Exhibit #2: When the New York Times wrote a feature on babies with Down's Syndrome, they certainly did not choose a neutral tone:
"A growing group of parents is seeking to insert their own positive perspectives into a decision often dominated by daunting medical statistics and doctors who feel obligated to describe the difficulties of life with a disabled child." "The parent evangelists are driven by a deep-seated fear for their children’s well-being in a world where there are fewer people like them. But as prenatal tests become available for a range of other perceived genetic imperfections, they may also be heralding a broader cultural skirmish over where to draw the line between preventing disability and accepting human diversity." 
The idea that the handicapped children have value and worth is a "perspective"; their parents are actually zealots motivated by fear. Later, the NYT finally managed to give at least one sentence to the more serious question underlying the debate: 
"Many participants in the ad-hoc movement describe themselves as pro-choice. Yet some see themselves as society’s first line of defense against a use of genetic technology that can border on eugenics."
 That's how they see themselves, anyway. The NYT promptly followed that up with a paragraph about the selfishness of the parents, but the underlying questions of ethics and eugenics had been cautiously raised. 

The question we ought to be debating in situations like this is not, "Will this be the easy and fun?" There is no question it won't be easy; I think that debate has been decided.  From their own testimony, families who have handicapped children would choose words like "meaningful" and "good" more quickly than words like "fun," though that aspect is clearly present at times too. 

The bigger question is, "Is this right?" Will we be a society that makes moral decisions based on whether or not lives will be easier, or whether or not we have done the right thing?  Sometimes those two possibilities converge; other times they do not.  The road we choose will make all the difference.

Lest the argument is raised that this "slippery slope" is silly, let's combine the two scenarios mentioned above.  The NYT wonders if there are questions of ethics and eugenics, and quotes one parent as wondering where the weeding out of undesirable children with undesirable traits will end. That in itself may sound alarmist, but wait: we just saw that two philosophy professors wrote, in a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, that if the "well being" of a family is at risk - whatever that means - merely being human does not mean you have the right to live. In fact, they go on to say: 
"However weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero." 
So, sub-human potential people - that is the young or handicapped who are not fully developed - should be at the mercy of actual people, no matter how pathetic their reasons for exerting lethal force?  Is this not Brave New World? 1984? The brutal government in The Hunger GamesI will let a quote from "Weakness That Makes Us Strong," by Randall Smith, have the last word:

Those children are us when we were at our weakest, our most vulnerable, our most embarrassed. And no one wants to look or feel that way. In fact, the fear of looking or feeling foolish is probably one of the reasons that, in survey after survey, fear of public speaking far outstrips the fear of death as people’s “worst fear.” Whom the gods would destroy, they first make foolish. These children hit us where we’re weakest, and we would prefer not to look at that part of ourselves. That, however, is precisely why they are some of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Remember Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” So too with us. When we can look upon that weak, vulnerable, socially awkward part of ourselves and say, “Yes, this too, God loves; this too, God sanctifies,” then we will finally be on the road to health and human flourishing. I fear a culture that wants to eradicate children with Down syndrome and the mentally retarded and all people who aren’t strong and vibrant and productive. I fear it, because the purveyors of such a culture are trying to kill what is most human in us. Caring for and living with children with Down syndrome humanizes us: it teaches us to love selflessly, the way Christ loves us. And it teaches us to love ourselves: even those parts of ourselves we’d prefer others not see, those parts that we ourselves would rather not look at.


  1. Hey Anthony! Love this last bit ... "Caring for children with downs humanizes us. It teaches us to love selflessly as Christ loves us".
    Having a family member with downs has been one of our greatest gifts! I don't know what we would do without him!

  2. Thanks, Rose. I have not had a child with Down Syndrome, but my third son was initially diagnosed with Chromosome X before being identified as Developmentally Disabled. He has captured my heart in a way that is hard to describe. Somehow, in the midst of his challenges, he has shown me what it means to love.

  3. Thanks for this. As a parent of two autistic children this is close to my heart.

    1. Stephen, a year ago my wife and I truly wondered if our youngest would ever be able to handle school or social situations in general. Early interventions seems to have alleviated his primary hurdles. However, my sister and her husband are taking their oldest back to the hospital - again - for tests in the next couple weeks. He had tests when he was younger; they thought things were progressing well, but recent events are sending them back.
      Perhaps there is some comfort in the community of shared challenges. I would love to hear more about your experiences.