Life Unworthy of Life?
Twenty years ago I made a preposterous prediction. I repeated it 12 years later in an issue of Solid Ground. I echoed it a third time in a Townhall column two years following. Sadly, last week it came to pass, virtually to the letter.
In October 1992, I was the keynote speaker at a fundraising banquet for the Conejo Valley Crisis Pregnancy Center. I warned the audience that revolutions did not start with rifle shot or cannon fire. Instead, they start with an idea or, in this case, the demise of one.
“We are now in the throes of one of those quiet, but desperate, revolutions in thought,” I said. I then described how an idea—one so critical to our case for human freedom it was the pivotal “self-evident” point of the central document of the American experiment—was fading towards extinction.
The notion that humans are different in an absolutely glorious way from every other created thing is the idea that single-handedly guarantees our liberties and secures our safety. This distinction is an inherent quality that cannot be effaced, a fixed reality of the “laws of nature” and a gift of “nature’s God.” It is the one thing grounding our “unalienable” rights—privileges and prerogatives still in force even when denied or disregarded.
Yet this core conviction, the very foundation of human rights, is disappearing. I called its passing the “death of humanness.”1
Slipping Down the Slope
In the January 2004 issue of Solid Ground,2 I warned of the danger of slipping down what ethicists call a “logical slippery slope.” When one action is morally significant, and a second action is similar to the first in a morally relevant way, then the moral quality of the first “slips over” to the second. Murder is immoral, and some think capital punishment is similar enough to murder to make capital punishment immoral too.3 That’s how it works.
The issue in question at the time was partial-birth abortion. I objected to calling the procedure an “abortion” for two reasons.
First, it’s a misnomer. Abortion happens to a child inside her mother’s womb. With partial-birth abortion, however, the child is not inside her mother when she’s killed; she’s mostly outside. The baby is delivered feet first until only her little head remains in the birth canal. The doctor then punctures the base of the child’s skull, suctions out the brain tissue with a catheter, then completes the delivery of the baby’s corpse.4
Freedom to abort is sacred in this country—a woman’s “Constitutional right.” Therefore, anything called an abortion must be defended. However, simply calling a procedure an abortion doesn’t make it one. In actual fact, partial-birth abortion is not an abortion at all, but infanticide with the baby’s head covered.
Even so, the term stuck, with startling effect. Language cleverly employed can often conceal the obvious, even for a justice of the Supreme Court. “Anything about infanticide, babies, all that,” Justice Ginsburg sniffed, “is just beside the point because what this bans is a method of abortion”5 [emphasis added]. To Ginsburg, the issue with partial-birth abortion was not whether a child was imperiled, but whether abortion was.
Which leads to my second concern, the logical slippery slope. If the Justice is not concerned about infanticide or babies and “all that”—in spite of PB abortion’s clear kinship to outright baby killing—what principled argument bars her from simply allowing the delivery to run its course naturally and then take the child’s life?
People often dismiss slippery slope arguments as overstatements, but this isn’t the case here. The differences between PBA and infanticide are only a few inches of physical location and a few seconds from officially recognized birth. What is the moral distinction between a fully delivered baby and one with only his head concealed in the birth canal? None that is relevant. Location is morally trivial in this case.
Therefore, I warned, if partial-birth “abortion” is countenanced (or any late-term abortion, for that matter), then infanticide will be equally simple to defend providing one caveat: They do not call it infanticide. They will find a different term, I predicted, to cleverly conceal the obvious. They’ll call it a “post-natal abortion.”
I repeated this last point in an article at Townhall.com in the fall of 2006,6 where I warned that our culture was becoming “velocitized.”
I first heard the term in driver’s training in high school. When a driver accelerates from, say, 30 to 60 miles per hour and settles in, he gets acclimated to his new speed and loses his sense of velocity. Going 60 feels like going 30.
This is dangerous on the highway, but it’s deadly when it happens to the moral consciousness of a culture. Years ago, Francis Schaeffer said that what was unthinkable yesterday is thinkable today, and ordinary and commonplace tomorrow. In other words, when a culture’s decline in values begins to pick up speed, it becomes velocitized and ceases to notice the descent.
First it was Roe v. Wade and abortion for any reason (or for no reason at all, it turned out). Before long medical authorities were arguing for the liberty to harvest organs from living children with severe deformities (e.g., anencephaly) whose lives should be sacrificed for their body parts.7 And if living children, why not embryos? Indeed, why not create embryos from scratch through “therapeutic” cloning? And partial-birth abortion? Just a few more ticks up the speedometer.
I closed my piece by reprising my prediction:
Since [with partial-birth abortion] the baby is just one contraction away from full birth, why not give a final push, completely deliver the child, and then take her life? Call it a “post-natal abortion” if you like—arguably the safest [abortion] procedure yet.
Now, twenty years after I first sounded the alarm, I am sad to say my prognosis has come to pass. Do not consider me clever for predicting this, though. It was easy. I understood that ideas have consequences. I only stumbled at one point. I didn’t get the wording perfect.
On February 23, 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME) published an article written by philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. Its title was, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”
It’s a stunning title, when you think of it. Not only does it signal a straightforward appeal for infanticide (which it is), but it suggests the authors reject any argument defending a newborn’s right to life (they do). If that sounds audacious, then you have not been following my argument.
Giubilini and Minerva are not moral mavericks or philosophical trendsetters. They are trend followers. The handwriting has been on the wall for decades. They are simply taking pro-abortion logic seriously. Listen carefully to the thinking outlined in the opening paragraph of their paper:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’s health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call “after-birth abortion” (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
These philosophers are making a simple point: Fetuses and newborns are the same. They are human, but not persons. Both lack “those properties which will make them ‘persons’ in the sense of ‘subjects of a moral right to life,’ that is, [the ability] to make aims and appreciate their own life.”
Since neither fetuses nor infants do the things real persons do, they cannot lay claim to the rights real persons have. Indeed, neither has any rights: “The alleged interest of potential people...amounts to zero.”
“Therefore,” they argue, “...when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible” [emphasis in the original].
They conclude with brevity and clarity:
If criteria such as costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn [emphasis added].
Do not let the technical tone dull your moral senses. This is a classical—and rationally valid—application of the logical slippery slope. Put in a colloquial way, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The same reasons disqualifying the unborn as persons equally disqualify the infant; if the first can be killed, so can the second.
Again, there is nothing new here. Giubilini and Minerva are not being clever; they are being consistent. The shift in thinking happened decades ago and multitudes have already signed off on it without realizing it.
Everything depends on how you answer one simple question. Your answer determines all that morally follows about abortion, infanticide, doctor-assisted suicide, and even—surprisingly—genocide, as we’ll see.
Here’s the question: What makes human beings valuable? Your answer is going to be one of two things. It is going to be something inside a human—intrinsic and essential to human nature—or something outside—something added on.
Some things are valuable on their own. Love, health, happiness, friendship, and a host of virtues are all valued as ends in themselves (the proverb, “Virtue is its own reward,” signals this conviction). When value is on the “inside,” we say the value is intrinsic, inherent to the thing just the way it is, nothing added. Things with intrinsic value never lose or gain worth. Their value is part of what they already are.
Other things (most things, in fact) are worthwhile for something on the outside, for how they function as a means to some other end. When things valued for their function lose that function, they also lose their value. This is because value resides in the role the thing performs, not in the thing itself. An illustration might help.
Thirty years ago I worked in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. One of the souvenirs Khmer children peddled to relief workers was riel. Riel was the national currency of Cambodia until the communists came to power and forcibly made rice the standard of monetary exchange for the country. Wads of riel instantly became worthless, save only as a tourist memento.
Money has no intrinsic value. It’s valuable only for its function. Things with functional value lose their value once they lose their function. Simple enough.
Now, back to my original question: What makes human beings valuable? Is it something inside or something outside?
Classically, the former. When Jefferson penned the words “All Men are created equal,” he was referring to the built-in (intrinsic) worth of every human being. This is why we call them “human rights”—rights simply in virtue of being human with no further appeal necessary.
Since a human’s value can never be gained or lost (being essential to his humanity), then liberties based on that value can never be gained or lost, either. They are “unalienable rights.” That was the rationale of the Declaration and the moral justification for the Revolution. The Founders took this truth to be “self-evident.” I think they were right.
But all of that has changed. Abortion on demand altered the equation.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “a human, but not a person” used to describe the unborn? Nowadays it’s the most foundational claim justifying the pro-abortion position. What does it mean? Simply this: Merely being human is not adequate to secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Something more is need.
That “something more” varies with who you ask. When the human-but-not-a-person challenge is put to me, I always ask “What’s the difference?” Usually I’m answered with silence because the person has never pondered the question. This is odd considering they have essentially divided humanity into two camps: human persons a human non-persons. The first has the strongest protection under law; the second can be killed with impunity. Considering what’s at stake, it might be helpful to know where the dividing line is.
Giubilini and Minerva offer their recommendation. The function that certifies one’s moral right to life is the ability “to make aims and appreciate their own life.” Others have different lists, including (variously) “sufficient” intelligence, complex brains, human-like awareness, and so on.
One could always ask where they got their lists, or why functions like IQ, skin color, or ethnicity couldn’t be included (it’s been done). But that’s a different problem.
Here is the monumental shift I want you to see. All such lists assume a functional view of human value. There is nothing about being human as such that secures one’s liberty. Rights now depend on how any individual human performs. Doing (in some sense) is what matters, not being.
Whoever lacks the proper functions, also lacks a life worth living. Indeed, these are Giubilini and Minerva’s very words: “Euthanasia in infants has been proposed by philosophers for children with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to be not worth living...” [emphasis added]. Since infants lack the functions—and, therefore, the value—that justifies keeping them alive, they ask: “Why Should the Baby Live?”
Now a bit of ugly history. This notion of “lives...not worth living” (their words, not mine) has been invoked before. It first showed up in German as “lebensunwertes leben,”8 literally “life unworthy of life.” It was used to describe segments of the population who were “impaired” in some way.
Lacking certain functions that made life worth living (in the estimation of some), these human beings also lacked the right to live and were thus exterminated. Precisely who were allowed to live changed as time went on and different criteria were added to the list qualifying some humans as legitimate persons.9
This shift to a functional view of human value was abetted by a shift in language. Child euthanasia was carried out by “The Children’s Specialty Department.”10 Transportation shuttling toddlers to the 30-odd killing centers was provided for by “The Common Welfare Ambulance Service.”11 The elderly were dispatched via “The Reich Group of Sanitarium and Nursing Homes.”12 The government referred to such measures as “healing” and “therapy.”13
It is always risky to invoke such a horrid period of human history to make a contemporary moral point. The impulse is strong to dismiss any such comparison as extreme. “Never again,” the Jews have pledged. The Holocaust is a singular circumstance in human history.
But is it? In our day, the foundational ideological shift has already taken place. Respected philosophers are already asking of perfectly healthy newborns, “Why should the baby live?” And people are listening.14
Worse, considering the reasons offered to justify abortion, they don’t have an answer. Given the standard pro-abortion distinction between mere humans and human persons, what principled argument is in hand to rebut Giubilini and Minerva’s logic?
But the logic moves yet a step further.
During the 2012 conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest such gathering in the western hemisphere, the rights discussion took a predictable turn. Thomas White, an ethicist at Loyola Marymount, argued that dolphins and other cetaceans (e.g., killer whales) should be declared “non-human persons” with individual rights under law.15
“The evidence for [cetaceans’] cognitive and affective sophistication,” White argued, supports his claim.16 Dolphins have thoughts and feelings as sophisticated as our own. Since they function in relevantly similar ways as human persons, why not grant them the same rights as human persons? In a radio interview on this point, I heard White actually claim, “Deliberately killing a dolphin is as bad as deliberately killing a human.”17
The same logic resulted in SeaWorld recently being sued18 (unsuccessfully, for the moment) for using captive killer whales in performances. The plaintiffs invoked the 13th Amendment ban on slavery or involuntary servitude. It was the first time a federal court seriously entertained legal arguments in favor of animals having the same Constitutional protections as humans.
I realize that for some I have just moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ironically, though, these claims make perfect sense when rights are attached to functions. Indeed, I take this development to be inevitable given our present course.19
The Consequence of Ideas
Mark the shift. First, being human was all that was necessary to ensure liberty. Next, humanity was necessary, but no longer adequate to qualify for protected “personhood” since some other functional qualities were required. Now noteworthy thinkers argue that being human is no longer even necessary.
When certain humans are denied basic rights for functional reasons, and certain animals are granted those rights for functional reasons, it’s clear that being human is no longer part of the rights equation at all. Human rights are disappearing in favor of person rights, rendering the original protections guaranteed by the Declaration literally meaningless.
If you are pro-abortion, ask yourself why. If your rationale entails the human/person distinction, even implicitly, then you have bought into the functional view of human value. You have stepped off the cliff and are in a moral free-fall. You will have nothing to say when philosophers like Giubilini and Minerva ask, “Why should the baby live?” You have already ratified their moral logic, even if at the time you did not grasp the implications. If you don’t think so, then try to explain in honest and precise terms how you escape.
Human rights have been replaced by person rights. And what is a “person”? That depends entirely on who happens to be in power at the moment.
I have become convinced that “personhood” arguments are just a legal and linguistic trick meant to keep some members of the human family from being considered bona fide, privileged, and protected members of the human community. History is strewn with the wreckage of this move—Dred Scott, Germany’s “therapeutic” genocide, abortion on demand, partial-birth abortion, and now “after-birth abortion.”
Whenever someone claims a fetus is a human, but not a person (the standard defense for “choice”), they have fallen for this trick. And if this point of view gains general acceptance (which it is doing), then it’s over. The rest is just detail—minor skirmishes, little clean-up efforts. The main battle has been lost. As Wesley J. Smith points out, in the new order, “No one is ever permanently invested with human rights.”20
Humanness is dying. The concept of unique human dignity is fading fast. We are putting it to death.