Of Babes and Bio-Ethics
Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. -- Luke 12:7
As we embark upon the Brave New World of government mandated health care, there is no denying that we will wrestle with the necessary debate on how to ration a finite commodity of resources in service to a near insatiable demand for care. As we travel down that hard road, decisions will have to be made on what constitutes "value for dollar" in the interest of the collective good. Moreover, upon whom should be lavished the largesse of extended life, and conversely, whose existence is deemed unworthy? In health care, perhaps no greater wedge issue will amplify the conflicting moral presuppositions that undergird the competing ethical obligations between religion and the secular project. What is at stake here is no less than: What is the value of a human life?
The Christian worldview holds all life to be miraculous; and human life occupies a unique category marked by differences of kind and not of degree when placed alongside animal existence. According to the scriptural texts, humanity is imbued with both Zoe and Bios, a spiritual component containing a fragment of the Divine to accompany man's biological organism. From this view, Man's existence derives value because he is loved by God to a degree that He would incarnate His only begotten Son, thereby ultimately redeeming humanity's fallen estate by reconciling and transforming His creation's dual nature at the Cross. From scriptural revelation, theologians and philosophers have derived an enlightened morality positing the primacy of human worth in both individual and political interactions. It is through our understanding of this love and value that the West's view of man's place in the cosmos has transcended that of other civilizations.
In antiquity, the life of an unwanted or deformed infant was generally terminated early by exposure to the elements or through sacrifice. In Roman society it was rare to give a name to a newborn under the age of two because doing so would create emotional attachments to infants who might not survive. Other societies, even today, place a premium on the lives of sons. Consequently, there is very little difference in outcome between a Spartan woman drowning her infant daughter and sex selective abortion whose practice is unremarkable in India or China. Societies that have strongly embraced the Christian morality have woven into their moral fabric a sacred understanding of budding life and a requisite duty to cultivate and protect it.
The secular/materialist construction of being arises from a wellspring more owing to utility and dependant on what it believes to be the product of a culturally normative conception of man. Being the product of chance and only accidentally differentiated from non-human life, Man is the "Clever Animal" that blushes. This view holds that human life springs from random chemical associations that take place within the backdrop of an ocean of time, and consequently, existence is ultimately unnoteworthy and lasts the span of a brief season. Evolving from dust, man soon returns to dust and is soon borne away from collective memory.
This apprehension of man owes its genesis to an emancipation from God and to a branch of the Western Enlightenment's view of Man as solely material. Yet, it would not be until the 19th Century that the presuppositions of Scientistic reduction would classify man as purely animal and would earnestly begin the project to deconstruct his existence in the realms of philosophy, psychology, and the biological sciences. Man's uniqueness and transcendent qualities would gradually succumb to a materialist ontology and his heritage as God's creation would become increasingly a claim of irrational superstition.
This evolution brings us to the current view of philosophical bio-ethics and a purely naturalistic view of man. If humankind lacks an a priori claim to the divine, then increasingly individual life becomes absorbed into the collective whose evolving measurements of value become dependent on time and contextuality. Within the hive, what were considered natural rights soon become diluted to the imperatives of the group, and the economic realities of scarcity collide headlong with the conclusion that the value of life is indeed a cipher to be weighed against necessity. In the calculus of fledgling human life, the unborn fetus and the newly born infant may one day be required to justify their worth. Measured against economic and social necessity, utility and cost effectiveness will increasingly becoming the point of contact between how we evaluate life and how we will manipulate it with a bloodless nuts and bolts pragmatism.
Bio-Ethicist Peter Singer is foremost amongst a not so new breed of philosophers who are attempting to shift the measuring rod that will determine how we comprehend existence in a de-enchanted world where the last vestiges of the Christian Weltanschauung are evaporating away. Singer has jettisoned the Christian paradigm of human value for what is known as "personhood:" a term that include includes humans and higher animals that display a measure of: intelligence, self-awareness, sentience, and ability to interact with one's environment and enjoy existence. He writes:
When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if the killing of the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others it would be right to kill him.
In his book, Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, author Wesley J. Smith holds that eschewing humanhood for personhood radically shifts the floor of man's definition of self-value and injects a new standard to judge and therein pronounce human inequality. In dividing life between persons and non-persons, we no longer fall prey to the post-modern indictment of "speciesism" which assaults the core of the Christian hierarchy of man as the apex of creation. This new and artificial cleavage grants personhood to some animals and thereby creates the possibility of rights for these creatures. Conversely, fetuses, embryos, the mentally disabled, and coma and Alzheimer patients may fall under the rubric of "non-persons" and subsequently their value falls short of horses and dolphins that theoretically satisfy the peculiar demands of this definition. Singer has gone so far as to propose that a woman, by virtue of his "enlightened theorizing," retain a 28-day window of decision for the purpose of terminating her new born infant, should she become dissatisfied.
This frightening understanding of personhood has radical implications for medical ethics and social policy. It goes without saying that under color of this new worldview, human abortions through time of birth should not be morally objectionable. More alarming is the notion that newborns who are found to possess characteristics as ephemeral as an undesired sex or eye color can be classified as non-persons because in their helpless stage they are not able to enjoy their life or interact in a "meaningful way." Clearly, those infants that were born with significant congenital birth defects, frailties, or syndromes could be terminated by a subjective judgment, on behalf of the parent or authorities, that the infant's state of being would preclude an unhappy life (for the parent or child) because the infant lacks the "tools" to either mentally or physically connect fully with existence.
Similarly, the cost of health care in sustaining and maintenance of this child must pass muster against a cost-benefit ratio. Singer and radical bio-ethicists hold that non-persons would effectually become the human equivalent of totaled-out automobiles: available for harvesting healthy organs and tissues without the necessity of having to answer to prickly arcane moral charges against treating humans as means and not as ends -- the indictment that Christianity harbors against this radical ethic.
It soon becomes clear that without the safety net of intrinsic human value that is crafted in the moral presuppositions that underlie Christianity's legacy to the West, the worth of an individual life becomes dependent on utilitarian value and the fabric of our civilization ultimately suffers as it is scientifically deconstructed along these materialist lines. Rather than becoming more charitable and humane, it is apparent that a Huxleyan social and genetic dystopia is gaining its ideological foothold in the universities and technocratic seats of dominion that are inexorably growing in power and influence. Several decades ago Dr. Singer's thesis was considered academically beyond the pale in its monstrous implications. Today, such views are respected by a majority of bio-ethicists who have divorced humanity from the strictures of traditionalist moorings and have embraced the project of a radical new humanist definition.
As the accretion of power to the State seems unstoppable and a great centralization of prerogative threatens to swallow up the sphere of the private, the forces of authority will ultimately, by virtue of the collective's moral force, weed out the faulty and the dull, the weak and the defective. It is a small step from gender to designer abortions and an even more logical movement to terminating the living child with the extra chromosome or the cleft palate. Once the camel's nose is under the tent, can termination of live infants by virtue of race, ethnicity, or economic status of the parents be so unimaginable for a system that has come so far down a road that it cannot remember from whence it came? In the name of expedience or social utility that adheres to a paradigm where man is the sum totality of measurement, just how far is too far?
A while back, my wife and I were passing through Banning, Cal. and stopped for lunch at a Bob's restaurant. We were seated at our table by a tiny young lady who greeted us with a big smile and no arms. One could see fingers protruding just barely from her Hostess top where her shoulders were. She effortlessly had collected the menus from the hostess station by wedging them between her neck and chest and performed her job flawlessly. I am sure that everyone that was in the restaurant felt the way I did about her sunny attitude and I wanted to tip her but I did not want to embarrass her or give her the impression that I pitied her. I wonder what Dr. Singer and his colleagues would have thought of this girl at birth -- whether they would have concluded that with her glaring deformity it would have been better if she were never born. She would after all face the cruelties of other children or the indignity of living on the public weal -- perhaps sitting behind a tin cup and begging for alms or an uneventful life in front of a TV. I personally believe that these academics, in their quest to homogenize and assure equal outcomes in society, fail to see the immense beautiful affection that a mother or father has for their Down Syndrome child and how they are spiritually deepened by the experience of loving and transcending their initial disappointment and fear.
How effortlessly we love the beautiful child with mild disposition -- but what does it reveal about us when we bitterly, begrudgingly, and resentfully give birth to a child of disfigurement for the struggles and claims that will be made upon us? It seems as if we have come full circle. Dr. Singer and the Spartan mother who exposes her blemished daughter on an Aegean hilltop have the same emaciated view of love and zeal for perfection, but in a spiritual reckoning it is not difficult to see just who the truly deformed are.
With her imperfections, our Creator and that young hostess are offering us a priceless gift by instilling thankfulness for our relative health and fostering in us an attitude of mercy and admiration towards those who have seemingly been dealt a cruel hand -- but continue on just the same in tender hope. I wonder, if I had compassionately asked her if she thought it might have been better for her never to have been born, what she might have said? I imagine she would have laughed and told me some anecdotes about her life, mostly happy and some cruel.... like we all share. Would she not have informed me that she was fortunate for the chance to live and work and to enjoy the mixed blessings of a young girl who was valued and loved by people who cared and thought that she was beautiful and special above all things?