Life Deserving of Life

Sometimes the morning newspaper sends shivers up your spine, and sometimes it gives you cause to hope that not all is lost.

As I learnt in the news yesterday, recipients of Medicaid in Virginia who find themselves pregnant with a child suffering from a “gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency,” can undergo an abortion paid for by the state.  A Virginia state senator has now introduced a law to eliminate this state subsidy, and as one might imagine the reaction on the left has been of the usual “war on womyn” variety. Yet in a rather more disturbing statement than usual, Democratic Senator Donald McEachin of Richmond complained that the proposed new law would require bringing “a child tragically incompatible with life into the world.”

What struck me immediately about this statement was that the speaker was no doubt completely unaware that his thinking on this subject comes from a line of thought which arose out of the field of eugenics. In fact, this unconsciously chosen wording is eerily reminiscent of “lebensunwertes leben”, a phrase which is usually translated as “life unworthy of life.” This concept was first proposed in print by the German legal philosopher Karl Binding in the early 20th century, in a book which he co-authored with the psychologist Alfred Hoche entitled “The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life”.

Binding and Hoche believed that the physically and mentally disabled weakened society, and the goal of preserving and protecting both the health and the resources of society were best met through the elimination of such persons.  Binding argued that an oversight committee or panel should be allowed to decide whether to put to death someone who was seriously mentally or physically impaired.  Moreover, those in possession of their faculties, he believed, should be able to choose to end their own existence with government-sanctioned assistance because this was not an exception to the law against murder, but rather moral in and of itself.  Eventually this treatise in particular and others like it led to the development of Aktion T4, which the Nazis used to kill people suffering from physical and mental disabilities, including children with deformities, Down’s Syndrome, and so on.

Now before anyone assumes that this is simply an example of Godwin’s Law, be assured that this line of thought has real-life consequences even today. For example we also read in the news yesterday about two 45-year old twin brothers in Belgium, who were euthanized by a physician because they learned that they were going blind. The two men had been born deaf and lived together all of their lives, and when faced with this diagnosis they could not bear the idea that they would no longer be able to see each other – this despite the fact that both of their parents and an older brother, at least, are still living, and that their conditions were not fatal.  I find this a rather expansive definition of “pain” under fundamental concepts of law, but will pass over any further comment on this horrible story other than to say one wonders what Helen Keller would have made of their arguments.

Yet amidst all of this selfishness and death, for ultimately that is the underlying philosophical principle and economic basis for both abortion and euthanasia, there is life.

The most beautiful thing you could have read in the newspaper yesterday was the story of the short, blessed life of a little boy named Lucian Johnson. Lucian’s parents were informed by physicians, when his mother was about five months pregnant, that their unborn son’s brain had not formed properly. As a result, it was doubtful that he would survive to term, and even if he did, Lucian would never be able to walk or talk, and would require constant, 24-hour medical care. Under the circumstances, doctors recommended that he be aborted.  Instead, after seeing her son on real-time scans and ultrasounds, his mother Katyia Rowe decided that it was her responsibility to care for her Lucian, regardless of how long he might live.

Because they had no idea how much time Lucian would have to live, Katyia and Lucian’s father Shane Johnson decided to give their little boy everything they could in utero. They would talk to him and play him music, and learned that he liked when Katyia would take a shower, since he would jump about when the water from the shower head would spray on Katyia’s belly. And while all of this was going on, as if the circumstances of preparing for the death of your child at any moment were not difficult enough, due to the nature of Lucian’s disabilities Katyia herself had to undergo six painful procedures to drain her amniotic fluid during the last nine weeks of her pregnancy.

What is remarkable is that these two rather ordinary people exhibited far greater intelligence, common sense and compassion than many of the most prominent voices in our society.  For both of these young people simply accepted the fact that all life matters, and since they had been given the responsibility for another life, that was the end of the discussion, whatever the doctors or courts or scholars might say. “Needless to say we were heartbroken,” Shane admitted, when they learnt about Lucian’s disabilities and poor chances for survival. “But we continued and accepted that whatever problems there may be, together Katyia and I could face anything and we would do anything for Lucian.”

Katyia’s reasoning with respect to why she did not abort her son was equally straightforward, particularly for someone who admitted that she had never wanted to be a mother.  She simply accepted that role when it was placed upon her, even when she learnt about her son’s disabilities and the prognosis for his early death.  “If he could smile and play and feel then despite his disabilities he deserved to enjoy whatever life he had left, no matter how short,” she observed. “Just because his life would be shorter or different, didn’t mean he didn’t deserve to experience it.”

How it is that these two parents, an office worker and a security guard from an English provincial town , neither married to each other nor experienced parents before this, could demonstrate a far wiser, sound rationale for their thoughts and actions than say, elected leaders from the corridors of power, or deep thinkers from the towers of academia? I will leave it to others more qualified than I to try to explain. My short answer would be that ultimately, human life recognizes that other humans are also deserving of life, in whatever form that life happens to arrive on this planet, or what happens to it the longer it is here.

Despite what those concerned with their electability, tenure, fundraising, and advertising space happen to be pushing this week, our numbers do not periodically need to be culled in order to somehow benefit society.  That is for cattle, not for people, and those who advocate treating people like cattle are in fact the ones who reek of what wafts about the stable-yard, at best, or indeed carry a distinct odor of sulfur, at worst.  And even then, even among those utterly convinced of their own brilliance in their unmitigated ignorance, neither we nor they are animals or devils.

In fact, we are creatures capable of remarkable acts of selflessness, who can bring a severely disabled child into this world and make the nine short hours that it spends here full of love, care, and true compassion. And once those nine hours have gone, we can make certain that child, who may never actually achieved anything in the eyes of the world, will be remembered and cherished. That, gentle reader, is a life fully compatible with life.

Rafaello
“Head of a Cherub” by Raphael (c. 1507)
Kunsthalle Hamburg

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