Upholding the Value of Disabled People

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 11/01/2017

It’s sad, but unsurprising, that many people advocate the killing of unborn human beings through abortion. What’s more shocking is that people now advocate the killing of born human beings in their infancy. This is due to a growing trend to disqualify disabled infants from being valuable and deem their life unworthy.

I first heard this argument from Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer. He argued that it’s morally permissible to kill a disabled infant for up to four weeks after she is born. His rationale? Happiness. He explains, “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 happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second.”


Noted evolutionist Jerry Coyne agrees with Singer. He writes, “If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born? I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral.” Both Coyne and Singer believe that birth is an arbitrary dividing line and that nothing substantially changes when the unborn passes through the birth canal. Tragically, they are both consistent. On their view, if you can kill a disabled person before she is born, then you can kill the same disabled child after she is born.

Such barbaric views are justified because of a shift in the way our society values human beings. Historically, human beings were believed to have intrinsic value. Something has intrinsic value if it has value in itself. Its value is inherent in its own existence. Friendship, health, and love are examples of things that are intrinsically valuable. Human beings have intrinsic value because of one reason: They are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

Notice that being made in God’s image is not a degreed property. You can’t have more or less of the image of God. You’re either made in God’s image or you’re not.

If our value comes from being made in God’s image, then we cannot lose that value if we lose our limbs, our physical abilities, or our mental abilities. Nothing can change our value because it’s not dependent on our abilities or any external factor.

Society is abandoning this view of intrinsic value. What remains is the view that human beings have instrumental value. Something has instrumental value if it’s a means to an end. It doesn’t have value in itself but is valuable only because it can get you something else that has value. For example, a one-dollar sparkler is not inherently worth one dollar; it’s valuable because it can get you something else that has value—entertainment. How much is the same sparkler worth once it’s burned and used? Nothing. That’s because it’s lost its ability to get you that other thing that has value. When an instrumentally valuable thing loses its ability to get you something else that has value, then it ceases to be valuable and you can throw it away.

Most things we own have instrumental value: cars, phones, and computers are valuable only because they are a means to some other valuable end.

The problem is that it is increasingly more common to believe human beings are instrumentally valuable. They are only valuable because they can achieve some other valuable end: create art, raise children, work at a job, and contribute to society. But the moment they lose those abilities is the precise moment they lose their value. They, too, can be thrown away.

In a society that treats human beings as if they have only instrumental value, the strong prevail and the weak are discarded. People with disabilities are at risk because they have lost some of their abilities. If instrumental value is the only value they have, then their diminished function diminishes their value. That’s why Singer and Coyne advocate infanticide of disabled newborns. They reject the idea that we are made in God’s image and don’t have a way to justify a disabled person’s value apart from what that person can do.

It’s critical, then, that believers bring back the concept of intrinsic value into our society. We need to show that every human is valuable because they are human and not because of what they can or can’t do. This, by the way, is consistent with our country’s formation. Our founding documents declare, “All men are created equal...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...”

An intrinsic value system provides a foundation for human rights, equal rights, and an imperative to protect the weak, vulnerable, and disabled. It’s also a bulwark against racism, discrimination, and bigotry.

That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. was justified in his case for the civil rights of African-Americans. He was a Christian who believed in the image of God—the only thing that grants every human being intrinsic value and equal value. May believers have the confidence and courage, like King, to stand for this truth and protect the disabled.