C16: The Dignity of Life
In RCIA for the past while we have been discussing the basis of living a moral life. This has included the teachings of the Church on social justice and we have seen that the most basic Church belief in this regard has been its belief in the dignity of human life. Before we look at the way that this applies to economic justice, stewardship of creation and social equality (the main points in C16) I would like to point out two recent news items that again illustrate the issues surrounding the dignity of life in contemporary society.
During the first week of January 2007 the New York Times reported that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists were recommending that all pregnant women, regardless of age, be routinely screened for abnormalities indicating Down’s syndrome in the developing fetus. Although the news report said nothing about tests indicating a Down’s syndrome baby leading to an abortion the people commenting on the story mostly said that it appears understood that such abortions would be the “normal” course of action. One writer did point out that the recommendation by the medical association was likely made in order to get such testing covered by private medical insurance plans. Another writer pointed out that doctors are under pressure to do such testing in order to protect themselves from malpractice lawsuits alleging “wrongful birth” in the event of an unanticipated Down’s syndrome baby.
The obvious issue about abortion in general aside many parents of Down’s syndrome children report their experience as being very positive. They (Down’s syndrome children) look different and have a certain level of special needs but they can lead happy and productive lives. On the other hand proponents of abortion seem to feel that these children would be better of if they had never been born. It seems that increasingly people see children as a burden that they are unwilling to bear.
A more complicated and equally troubling story is that of “Ashley” as told by CNN in January of this year. According to CNN:
“Ashley, 9, has a condition called static encephalopathy, which means an unchanging brain injury of unknown origin. She’s in a permanent infant-like state – can’t hold her head up, speak or roll over on her own. When Ashley was 6 years old, her parents and doctors agreed to have her uterus and breast buds removed so she’ll never reach puberty. She was given estrogen treatments and will never be more than 4 feet 5 inches and 75 pounds.”
Ashley’s parents apparently defend their actions on the basis of ultimate benefit for the child. Ashley will be more comfortable at a smaller size. Breasts would have made lying down difficult. It will be easier to include Ashley in future family functions if she is easily carried and transported. I’m not sure what my personal reaction would be if Ashley were part of my family and my heart goes out to these parents. Still, it seems to me that the parent’s reaction, despite their argument, is based on their convenience rather than on what Ashley might want (if she could speak). It must take a great deal of effort to care for such a child but it must be asked if Ashley’s human dignity demands a different course of treatment than the one followed by these parents.
update: An editorial in the New York Times for January 26, 2007 has this interesting (and scary to me) observation about this case: "We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don't attribute dignity to dogs or cats, even though they clearly operate at a more advanced level than human infants."