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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Life unworthy of life?

Modern American society currently stands very close to this precipice, and many appear to be willing to leap right on in. Mark Steyn has a brilliant column on it today:

Shortly after 9/11, I wrote in these pages about one of the most curious aspects of the new war - the assurance given to Islamist "martyrs" that 72 virgins were standing by to pleasure them for eternity. The notion that the after-life is a well-appointed brothel is a perplexing one to the Judaeo-Christian world, and I suggested that Americans would be sceptical if heaven were framed purely in terms of boundless earthly pleasures.

But, on reflection, if the Islamists are banal in portraying the next world purely in terms of sensual self-gratification, we're just as reductive in measuring this one the same way.

America this Holy Week is following the frenzied efforts to halt the court-enforced starvation of a brain-damaged woman for no reason other than that her continued existence is an inconvenience to her husband. In Britain, two doctors escape prosecution for aborting an otherwise healthy baby with a treatable cleft palate because the authorities are satisfied they acted "in good faith".

You can read similar stories in almost any corner of the developed world, except perhaps the Netherlands, where discretionary euthanasia is so advanced it's news if the kid makes it out of the maternity ward. As the New York Times reported the other day: "Babies born into what is certain to be a brief life of grievous suffering should have their lives ended by physicians under strict guidelines, according to two doctors in the Netherlands.

"The doctors, Eduard Verhagen and Pieter J. J. Sauer of the University Medical Center in Groningen, in an essay in today's New England Journal of Medicine, said they had developed guidelines, known as the Groningen protocol."

Ah, the protocols of the elders of science. Odd the way scientists have such little regard for scientific progress. It's highly likely that many birth defects - not just the bilateral cleft lips - will be treatable and correctible in the next decade or two. But once you start weighing the relative values of individual lives, there's no end to it. Much of that derives from the way abortion has redefined life - as a "choice", an option.

In practice, a culture that thinks Terri Schiavo's life in Florida or the cleft-lipped baby's in Herefordshire has no value winds up ascribing no value to life in general.


The pressure begins at the margins, and then inexorably starts to squeeze inward. One of the most darkly-comic blasts of hysteria that I've heard repeated over and over and over is this:

"If the government can do this to Terri Schiavo, they'll do it to everyone--they'll be shoving feeding tubes in left and right!"

To which I reply: "Welcome to our planet! By all means, O Visitor, take a look around and make sure to see a sunset in the Porcupine Mountains."

In this age of utility-minded government and bean-counting insurers disinclined to authorize long-term treatment for anything, you should fear the opposite. There have been Terris in the past--there will be far more in the future.

Which is why all of this talk about her condition and prospects of recovery should be a source of profound disquiet. This language reveals a strictly utilitarian calculus--what are we getting--or can we get--for our money and effort? It becomes increasingly easy to assign useless eater status with that mindset. It spreads, very subtly but very surely. Today it's Terri Schiavo. Tomorrow it's the octogenarian next door you don't know very well, but who has tuberculosis. The next day it's Grandma, who has been awfully listless since Grandpa died. The day after that it's you.

And if you think the paper shackles of a living will or advance directive will hold back the utilitarian imperative for long, I hope you are right. But I very much doubt it. We all become increasingly "useless" to strangers as time passes.

Welcome to post-modern secular civil society, and good luck.

You are going to need it.

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