Human life: Dignity or Quality?

Early in my ministry, I had a conversation about an allegedly-Lutheran Hospital. A clergy-member had served on the staff there at one point as a chaplain, and was involved in discussions that eventually became their policy on pregnancy terminations. He spoke emotionally about the difficulty in crafting a policy that weighed all the different competing factors: our commitment to love all people, our duty to show compassion in difficult circumstances, and the tragic cases of permanent disability, deformity, or low quality of life that sometimes are shown by pre-natal testing. It was obviously a deeply personal thing for him to discuss, and the other pastors in the room nodded sympathetically at all the right moments.

My declaration that he had helped to craft a eugenics policy was not well received. I was assured that these were all tragic cases. That the lives would be short, filled with suffering and pain. That they would have reduced mental capacity. The parents would likely expend enormous amounts of time/attention just to keep them alive for a few short years.

I pointed out that this was the very definition of eugenics – not as moral judgment, but according to the definition of the word.

Apparently, eugenics carries with it a moral judgment, regardless of whether the term is used properly.

It should. It is a reprehensible thing. But failing to call eugenics by its name does not make it less morally reprehensible.

This was brought to mind by recent mainstream Media reports that “Iceland is getting rid of Downe’s Syndrome” and Patricia Heaton’s observation that killing all those who have a condition is not the same as getting rid of the condition. It is eugenics. You can call it compassion. But it is eugenics. You can call it difficult cases. But it is eugenics. Calling it something else does not change what it is.

The word itself means “good genetics” or “good birth”. The implication is that there is also “bad genetics” or “bad birth”. We want to get rid of those. Either by selective breeding – as we do with cattle or dogs – or by selective termination – as is sometimes done with malformed livestock. (Do you see a pattern…)

Of course God knows of no such thing as a “bad birth”. There is life – which is created by God. He is the author of life. There is plant life – created for man’s use without regard for feelings or emotional state or ability to feel pain. That is, plant life exists to be used only according to patterns of responsible behavior that allow it to continue propagating. We need not take the feeling of the plant into account as we work. We can cut branches and graft them, we can reshape and rework the plants to our hearts content . There is animal life – also created for man’s use, but with regard for the condition of the animal. So, we use cattle for food, but treat them humanely when they are alive. We kill disease carrying vermin, but we must weigh effectiveness of treatment against the suffering the animal endures. When animals are in constant pain, we euthanize them: They can not understand the value of suffering. They do not comprehend the value of rehabilitation. They only know that they hurt. They can not reflect on it, learn from it, grow from it.

People are different. They are created by God to be the rulers of creation. They are given life by God as well. But that life has inherent dignity and worth; it is the most precious thing. We can not create it; we can only begin the life of humans according to the limits set down by God who created – and continues to create it We facilitate the creation of new life, but it is always God that gives that life.

There is no such thing as a “bad human life.” And yet, in many places, those who are deemed “unworthy of life” or terminated. Sometimes this termination is self-imposed (suicide or assisted suicide). Sometimes it is externally imposed (euthanasia, abortion, etc.) In discussions of this sort, we are less likely to hear about “the dignity of life”, and more likely to hear about “the quality of life.”

Not every discussion of quality of life is bad. Doctors, nurses, therapists want the best quality of life possible for their patients who are sick or disabled. They speak of “improving the quality of life…” That is a good thing for measuring the quality of care patients receive – which is to say, for evaluating the medical professionals. But its most common use is as an  evaluative instrument for the patients themselves. This is a bad use. We don’t speak of “quality of life” in determining whether someone should live or die. We speak of “the dignity of life” – the inherent value each life has. This can not be measured. It is given by God, and we dare not trespass onto this holy ground. We must acknowledge it, and live according to it. And suffering does not diminish the dignity of life. There is value in suffering, even if it is not a pleasant process for the individual or those around him.

This does not mean we never allow death to occur. There is a difference between a person who is disabled and one who is dying. Medical advances may blur that line. I’m sure there are hard cases. But as a pastor I see a lot of people die. And it is always (or at least almost always) quite clear when that line is crossed. As Christians who believe in the resurrection, we don’t keep bodies alive just because we can. But neither do we hasten their deaths. We don’t give so much morphine that a patient dies. But neither do we withhold morphine so that a patient suffers

All human life is precious in the sight of God, and so also must it be precious in our sight. We help those we can help, we comfort all – especially the dying. But we never move from “comforting those who are dying” to “comforting the suffering by helping them to die.”

And we certainly never encourage killing the less able. Because at some point, there will be someone who is more able than yourself. And that would give them the right to kill you.

That’s eugenics. No matter what euphemism you use for it.

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1 Response to Human life: Dignity or Quality?

  1. Pingback: My reading list for August 13-19, 2017 | Clay on the Wheel

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