Tags: People | and | Baby

10 People and a Baby

Wednesday, 05 September 2001 12:00 AM

When asked at precisely what age a child becomes a "person," he was unable to reply. Nor did he express an opinion about when an elderly individual ceases to be a "person." In fact, he hadn't thought about the question.

Apparently a "person" was one who resembled the editor more closely than did a 1-year-old. That is, "person" was defined not biologically, and certainly not theologically, but merely narcissistically: "If you look like me, youre a person – if not, forget about it."

If resemblance to oneself defines "personhood," it is a short step to defining the mentally impaired, the handicapped and the senile as nonpersons. This is hardly the attitude expected of an editor of a major liberal paper. Yet it is an attitude shared by many "bioethicists." Is the next step the stripping of the protections of humanity from members of unpopular racial, religious or political groups? Defining groups as subhuman can be habit-forming.

But this was not an isolated incident. More recently, the horrific terrorist bombing of Sbarro's pizzeria in Jerusalem murdered 16 people and injured more than 100. One of the dead was Judith Greenbaum, an American citizen. Yet almost all press reports stated that 15 people had been murdered, neglecting the fact that Mrs. Greenbaum was pregnant.

More recently still, front-page stories reported that a mass murderer near Sacramento killed his wife, his young son and four other relatives. Media reports seemed unanimous in accusing him of six murders. Yet buried in an early story was the fact that his wife had been pregnant. Is this fact irrelevant in determining the number of murders? Obviously it is to the reporters and editors who covered the story.

But it isn't irrelevant to the justice system. Section 187 of the California Penal Code defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought. Exception is made for legal abortions. Both California cases fall under this law. A similar bill was recently passed by the House of Representatives. If the Senate approves, the Israeli case would fall under this provision.

"Pro-choice" activists oppose the federal law, fearing that any protection for a fetus might somehow endanger a woman's right to have an abortion whenever she wishes. But the fear is groundless – the California law has been in effect for some time, and abortions there continue unabated. Perhaps the fear is not really that the "right to choose" might be impaired, because here the murderer, not the mother, chooses. Perhaps the real fear is that the status of a fetus might be raised above that of a decayed tooth – a worthless thing that can be removed whenever the owner pleases.

There are many ways to characterize contemporary life, but the most meaningful is to note the virtual absence of anything considered sacred. For example, Congress restored funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, despite its sponsoring photos (not paintings) including a man with a bullwhip in his anus, a man urinating into another man's mouth, a nude little boy, and a little girl revealing her genitalia.

Another photo (not a painting), titled "Piss Christ," showed a crucifix submerged in urine. Proponents seem unaware that photos require real children posed as they are depicted, and a real crucifix in urine, or that many taxpayers would be deeply offended. Indeed, the golden light outlining the crucifix could just as well have been produced by honey, and the photo titled "Sweet Jesus." It was no accident that the exhibitors (exhibitionists?) included both degradation of the human form and desecration of a religious symbol.

If the human form has no special meaning, neither may humans themselves. Military officers used to study "Leadership, Drill, and Exercise of Command." The title of the course was changed to "Personnel Assets Management." I would rather be seen as an individual who deserves leadership than as an asset to be managed. Treating people as disposable objects causes even those who began with dedication to lapse into mediocrity while awaiting retirement or layoff.

Adults may be seen as assets, but the young and old lack even that value. Abortion on demand has taught us that even a full-term fetus can be killed with impunity until the head emerges from the mother. Yet we expect teens to regard newborns – one minute later – as human beings. No wonder some mothers fail to make this radical change and throw newborns into Dumpsters. No wonder some editors fail to see 1-year-olds as "people."

If the very young risk being dehumanized, so do the old or disabled. Most of Dr. Kevorkian's "patients" were women, and several had disabling but not fatal diseases. They were thus in the most vulnerable groups. What does that say about our regard for the disabled? Doctors rate the quality of life of disabled persons lower than patients themselves rate it. "I’d rather be dead than disabled" easily becomes "You should be dead."

If all human life isn't sacred, none is. Intermediate positions are weak and are being overrun one by one. Who deserves to remain alive then becomes merely a matter of opinion. To paraphrase Wesley Smith, an advocate for disabled people, death is no longer a biological event but a value judgment. The 20th century clearly shows where this process can lead.

Much has been said about what is wrong with health care, education and criminal justice. Distrust of politicians and lawyers is rampant. Each of these fields has its own problems, but a common thread is apparent. Avaricious doctors, apathetic teachers, corrupt politicians and deceitful lawyers all share a lack of respect for their professions and for their fellow humans.

In the past, most people grew up in religious homes. Even if they later became irreligious, they often retained the idea that some things are sacred. Now many grow up without learning that anything is sacred. How can they appreciate the significance of a marriage certificate, an oath of office or a contract? What is to prevent their thinking "How can I get out of this?" rather than "How can I stick to it?" And when they say something, even under oath, what is to prevent their thinking, "How can I hide the truth?"

Some time ago, a plot at Arlington National Cemetery was assigned to a non-veteran who contributed large sums to politicians. Years ago, this report would have seemed incredible. But we have become so used to leaders who hold nothing sacred that it was unsurprising. If human life and liberty are not sacred, why respect the resting place of those who gave their lives to preserve our liberty?

Eventually people tire of seeing their taxes used to spit on their deepest beliefs. They tire of seeing additional categories of human life declared to be less than human. They tire of media moguls who believe young children are not "people." They tire of lawyers and politicians using language as an octopus uses ink – to confuse and conceal. They tire of officials with "For Sale" signs on their doors. They tire of leaders who encourage their weaknesses, not their strengths. They tire of a commander-in-chief whose behavior with subordinates would get a corporal a dishonorable discharge.

They tire of wondering whether to believe their government's pronouncements, when the president disputes the meaning of "alone" and "is." They tire of presidents and congressmen using interns – and discarding them – like street whores, and then posing as supporters of women's rights. They tire of seeing a great nation led by people with the veracity of common criminals and the impulse control of 4-year-olds.

Disgruntled, cynical citizens may remain passive in good times. But when the inevitable recession or other problems loom, they may turn to a dangerous demagogue who promises strong leadership. Before this happens, we must rebuild trust. President Bush is doing his best, but no leader can restore trust by himself. He needs our help.

A good place to start is the idea that some things are sacred – for example, one's word, an oath, and human life, whatever its age or usefulness to others. If we can't agree on such basic principles, we may not survive as a nation. But it won't matter, because we won't deserve to.

When Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," he was referring to slavery, which was abolished 136 years ago. But the fear is still justified, because we have found new ways to dehumanize unpopular groups. I do not presume to know the mind of the Almighty, but I suspect that He looks with extreme disfavor on those who believe that the unborn, the newborn, and even 1-year-olds are not "people." I might be wrong, but do you want to bet everything you have that I am?

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When asked at precisely what age a child becomes a person, he was unable to reply. Nor did he express an opinion about when an elderly individual ceases to be a person. In fact, he hadn't thought about the question. Apparently a person was one who resembled the...
Wednesday, 05 September 2001 12:00 AM
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