The same thing that made the Elephant Man a human being makes a fetus a human being.
Justice Stanley Mosk wrote the dissenting opinion in the recent court decision about fetal murder talking about the unborn child being roughly the size of a peanut whose appearance remains less than human and then talked about different aspects of its growth. As a matter of fact, in the LA Times today one letter from Douglas Campbell in Culver City says “Justice Mosk in his lengthy and graphic dissent to the California Supreme Court decision concerning fetal murder tried to described the ugly, non-humanity of the fetus in order to buttress his position that a post-embryonic fetus is not a person. I think he utterly failed when he used the words creature, head, eye, nostril, feet, tails, hands, in this description. Perhaps his point would have been better made if he meticulously avoided any mention of fetal anatomy and its relationship to adult human anatomy and again, perhaps not.” I guess that Mr. Campbell’s point was that even in trying to describe how the unborn child was not human, he had to use all these terms from human anatomy to disqualify the child from humanity.
I was watching TV last week (which I very, very rarely do) and there it was, this grotesque looking human being staring at me through the tube, as it were. I was affixed on this image because it was so incredible. It was a man whose face was entirely normal on one the left side, but split right down the middle of his face from his forehead down to his chin, on the other side of his face it was completely grotesque. What had happened, I don’t know, but it’s like all of his skin began to grow and then sag so that half of his face was two or three times the size it was meant to be, all swollen and sagging down. His eyelid was completely closed over, his nostril was hanging, the right side of his face was completely distorted. He could only talk with difficulty out of the left side of his mouth. He’s an older man now and he was talking about his life.
It turns out that this was a TV show was entitled “I Am Not A Freak.” It reminded me of the movie “The Elephant Man,” which is really worth seeing. It must have been fifteen years ago that this film came out. It is really a compelling and touching film. There is one scene where this grotesquely deformed human being is being chased in the subway for no reason. The veil he wore to cover his face was torn away. Somebody saw him and screamed, so he ran, and others saw him and screamed. Everybody thought that this “animal” must have done something. The crowds were chasing him and trying to kill him, and finally he was cornered in a stairwell in the subway. He just yelled and screamed in his defense to all of those crowding in on him to destroy him, “I am not a freak! I’m a human being!” That was one of the most poignant scenes in the entire movie. I get choked up just thinking about it, it was so touching.
Well, anyway, this was the point of this show as they delved into the lives of these human beings, these wonderful individuals who had grotesque deformities. Some were giants. Some were small—Tom Thumb, the smallest man in the world. Some were incredibly obese. These were all the famous people from the freak shows. Ching and Chang, the first Siamese twins, who, by the way, between them probably fathered about a dozen or more children. Both of them were married. They lived three days in one house and three days with the other family, going back and forth. It’s amazing. They lived right next door, which I guess was convenient. They showed bearded ladies and the incredible mule woman whose face was so distorted she looked like an animal. By the way, the mule woman turned down many marriage proposals until she finally married. Virtually all of these so-called bearded ladies were married as well.
They had an individual whose body was cut off at the waist. I don’t know it happened. Because the bottom half of his body was kind of cut flush, if you will, he could just kind of stand on his waist. He used his hands to walk around, and it looked like an optical illusion. It looked like they were doing something with mirrors, because here’s a man coming through the floor, as it were, and then when he moves, he just shuffles his hands and he moves around with great agility and dexterity. As a matter of fact, part of the conversation was about all these different things this man did. He went sky-diving, swimming, snorkeling and it didn’t slow him down. His mother was telling about it. As a matter of fact, he was an adopted child. His mother adopted him like that. She made the point that he was among the most well adjusted and happiest of her children. And the rest of her children were, pardon the term, “normal,” physically normal, no problems.
He went to mechanic school and as the narrative continued they showed him working on a car. There he was, his belt line down on the concrete, grabbing a few tools, stuffing them in his belt. And then there was kind of a step stool, and he put his hand on the step stool and effortlessly, like water flowing uphill, just lifted himself up onto the stool, reached up under the fender of the car, pulled himself with the other hand, again effortlessly, and he floated up onto the top of the engine where he settled himself in and began working on the car. I mean it was incredible.
You could not watch this and listen to the tales of these individuals without being touched by their deep and profound humanity. Behind the visible, external, physical distortion, behind this twisted body, in every single case there was a wonderful human being. Now when I say wonderful, I don’t mean necessarily that they were always the nicest people to be around. These people had their moments, too. The point I’m making is that they were human beings and that’s wonderful. Scripture says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s not just referring to our bodies. It’s us. Ourselves which dwell within the body. And that is valuable.
Now all of this has ramifications for what it means to be human. I would love to get a video tape of this show to use in my ethics class. I already have them watching the film “The Elephant Man” because I think it really helps to communicate a very, very important truth.
This is where I’m going with this: Being human is not a “look-like” kind of thing. A human being isn’t someone who has a particular shape of a face, who is a particular size, who weighs a certain amount, who has particular appendages, who is capable of doing particular things. A human being isn’t defined by their capability of accomplishing different tasks. There is something else there that defines a human being.
JP Moreland is fond of telling the story of talking with his daughter when she was in school learning about the Declaration of Independence. They were discussing the phrase where it says “all men are created equal.” He simply asked her, “How is it that all men are equal?” She faltered for a moment before she said, “Well, they all have belly buttons.” Well, that wouldn’t work because some people don’t have a belly button. Actually, my sister doesn’t have a belly button. Some people don’t have a belly button but that doesn’t mean that they’re not a human being. Or if you have two belly buttons, then maybe you’re twice the man that others are. I don’t know. So, as he questioned her, he got to the point that when you really examine it, what is there that’s the same about human beings? There is nothing that is physically the same about human beings. Absolutely nothing. What is spoken of there in the Declaration of Independence is the intuitive notion that there is an invisible quality of human nature that has a special value and that is what makes us all equal. We share in our humanity which is valuable, and this is why we ought not be oppressed by the government. That was the political point in that case.
My point here is when Judge Mosk dissents in this recent California Supreme Court decision about fetal murder on the basis of the form or appearance of the unborn child itself, he makes a serious mistake. He argues that it’s a tiny creature that is less than human because it has a bulbous head which is bent sharply downward. Its eye sockets are widely spaced. Its pug-like nostrils open forward. Now are we to presume that people whose bodies are contorted are not human beings? Are we to presume that people with pug noses or wide spaced eyes are not human beings? Or if they’re small and defenseless they’re not human beings? No, this is not an issue of arbitrary definition. We don’t just make up definitions as to what it means to be human because some look human and some don’t.
A human being is a very particular kind of thing. It’s some individual thing that is alive, and all beings are classified. There are plant-type beings and non-plant-type beings. There are reptile-type beings, and mammal-type beings, and bird-type beings. And among the mammals there are ape-type beings, and there are dog-type beings, and then there are human-type beings. All of these beings can be identified by looking at some very basic things. The basic body parts don’t make them human, but they help to identify them as human. One of those would be cellular structure, for example. Or their pace of development. Or what their parents were. All things reproduce after their own kind.
The simple answer to what many people make to be a very complex question is that the offspring of two human beings is another human being. The unborn child is a separate being. It is born of two human beings, therefore it must be a human being. In fact, a closer analysis shows it to be the case. Now once it becomes a human being at the point of conception, it becomes a separate being. It is a human being for the rest of its existence. That’s as simple as it can be and there’s nothing hard about that. The only thing that changes is the outside appearance. It continues to change from the point of conception all the way until the time of death, not just up until the time of birth. It continues to change. And that’s why it’s a serious mistake to define humanness based on some outward appearance. The minute you do that, not only have you made an error—because human beings are more than just , and not merely limited by their appearance—but you begin to define out of meaningful existence all sorts of human beings that just don’t look like your definition—all sorts of human beings who don’t have all the same parts that you have, all sorts of human beings that can’t do what you can do.
And the time may come when you may lose a part or two yourself along the way, and then by that standard you cease being human yourself, and then what? Then your life is on the block as well. And that ought not be, because a human being is not defined by his or her parts. They are defined by something else that is not influenced or changed by the external body parts. It is something inside. It is the nature that has made it a human being and that stays the same, essentially what it is, from the conception until it dies. Beings don’t change from one kind to another. You don’t slowly change from one being into another. It isn’t the kind of thing beings are. That’s a philosophic notion. But it’s helpful to know that because then you won’t make foolish mistakes like this. Even if you don’t do the philosophy it strikes me as patently obvious that a human being is no less human because his arms are missing, or his legs are gone, or his fingers are webbed, or his nose is pug, or his features seem grotesque, because inside there is still a human being that is fearfully and wonderfully made.
One of the things that I was thinking about as I was watching this film and saw all of these strange, severely deformed, distorted, even grotesque in many cases, human beings was “what a tragedy.” I’m sure a lot of other people who were watching the show thought the same thing. Now it’s natural to think that and I don’t fault anyone for having that feeling, but it suggests a couple things to me.
The first thing that occurred to me when I thought “what a tragedy” is that that response is a patent admission that we were designed to be something different, at least physically. It’s a tragedy because something is missing that ought to be there and that’s why it’s tragic. Where do we get this “ought to be there” business? If we are merely the products of mindless chance, molecules clashing in the universe, matter in motion, if there is no design, if it’s simply the blind watchmaker, natural selection doing its job without any concern for any order, design, purpose, value, anything like that, then why is it tragic when nature happens to spit out a human being that just looks different? It’s not tragic at all, it seems to me. The fact that we recoil is not just an aesthetic thing. In other words, we don’t recoil because what we see is ugly. We’re recoiling, I think, for a different reason. We’re saying it’s not just ugly, but something is wrong here. It ought to be different, and the minute we say something like that we are smuggling in metaphysical baggage that implicates a designer. To put it very clearly, we are saying is that God meant for this to be different here and what we see is not fulfilling God’s design, and therefore it’s tragic. Now if naturalism is true, if there is no God, if it’s just cause and effect, and if it’s just evolution, then it makes no sense to say that something is wrong here. It makes no sense to say that things ought to be different.
But there’s another thing that I thought about when I heard this comment in my mind, this statement ringing in my mind which I’m sure was coming to the lips of many watching this TV show. Why is it a tragedy? Here is this man who is cut off at the waist and he walks on his hands. Why is it tragic that he has no legs? I thought for a minute, what if everybody in the world had no legs and everybody in the world had to walk on their hands? It seems to me that there would be a lot of fine things we could with our lives. And beyond that, it seems to me that they still are valuable people not just because they are productive. They still are human beings and it seems to me that their value has not changed at all. So it strikes me that when someone says this it’s a tragedy, not only are they acknowledging the design factor, and bearing testimony that God created bodies in a particular way that is normal and there is a “shouldness” about that and therefore a tragedy when a child is born without all the regular parts, but it also seems to communicate a value which says that the essential stuff of being human is not the body but in the body.
Once again we are back to this other issue. I think that the tragedy to a great degree is kind of how we look at it because if everyone in the world had no legs, we wouldn’t consider it tragic. Or let me put it a little differently to you. Let’s just say that all human beings were born with wings. Everybody could fly as well as walk, just like the pictures of angels. And then there was a child born with no wings, how would the rest of humanity look upon that? In other words, if a child was born just as we are now they would say what a tragedy. What a grotesque deformation. No wings. Yet. in fact, that child growing into an adult would be able to do everything that we can now do and we don’t consider it tragic right now that we haven’t got wings, do we?
So the point I’m making about this notion of tragedy is that when we talk about people who are missing body parts, to a great degree that is a value statement which is tied into a false understanding of what is ultimately important. The fact is, even people without certain appendages, not only are valuable in themselves, as human beings, but have tremendous capabilities of doing meaningful things, and we do them a disservice when we suggest that they are tragic individuals just because their bodies are different and don’t have the capabilities that other people’s bodies have.
To make the application back to the abortion issue, we do a terrible disservice when we presume that this child’s life is not worthy of being lived because we know through amniocentesis or through sonogram that it’s going to be born with something less than the body parts we deem most efficient or preferable, and so we decide to kill it.
Do you know what the suicide rate is among handicapped people? Zero. That’s it. Zero. These people don’t kill themselves, these that are born with congenital defects. They want to live. Why? Because there is more to life than just body parts. They know that. We should too.