Saturday, August 23, 2014

On human utility and individual worth

Unless you happen to follow the Australian news media, you may not have heard of the Baby Gammy controversy. Here's the digested version: an infertile Australian couple engages a Thai woman to be their surrogate mother. The surrogate becomes pregnant with fraternal twins, one of whom -- a boy later named Gammy -- has Down syndrome. (According to the surrogate, the Australian parents told her to selectively abort the boy, but she would not do so, believing that ending an innocent life in such a manner would be wrong. For their part, the parents claim they never directed the surrogate mother to abort the child.) When the twins are born, the Australian parents visit Thailand, but only to retrieve their daughter; they abandon their unwanted biological son with his surrogate mother, leaving her to sort out what to do next and how to pay for the boy's necessary medical care (like many children with Down syndrome, Gammy has numerous medical issues, including congenital heart defects, and his health is delicate). The couple, who have been practically in hiding since their actions were brought to light, defend their choice on Australian television by saying they "don't think any parent wants a [child] with a disability" and further complain that they expected to receive a partial refund of the surrogacy fee, presumably because one of the children produced was defective.

The Baby Gammy case represents one surprisingly pervasive school of thought about human beings.

Here's a different one.

A couple I know well recently gave birth to a sweet little daughter. They could tell right away that she had some physical abnormalities, but it wasn't until her blood work came back that they found out their little girl was born with an extremely rare chromosome disorder -- one so rare, in fact, that I will not mention it by name in order to retain the family's privacy. Individuals with this particular disorder have severe to profound mental retardation, do not learn to talk, rarely learn to walk, have hearing and vision problems, low muscle tone, seizures and heart problems. They have extremely fragile health and often do not live past childhood. Here is what the mother of this little girl has to say about her:
"We know God gave us this perfect little human to teach us many things. She is beautiful and when she looks into your eyes her sweet spirit peers into your soul, pouring her love into your heart. We are so blessed to have her! We may not have known anything was wrong with her until she was born but it would not have changed a thing to know it sooner. We love her and our lives will be blessed forever no matter how long she is with us .... [Our daughter's purpose] is to teach those she comes in contact with about unconditional love."
What is the key difference between these two stories?

While you're thinking on that, here's another controversial idea: do you think human euthanasia should be legal? After all, when beloved pets become too old or too ill, we often do the merciful thing and have them put to sleep; shouldn't we be equally merciful to the human beings in our care? To be clear, we're not just talking about infants with moderate to severe physical and/or mental disabilities. Consider people like Christopher Reeve, one of my favorite actors; after a riding accident he was paralyzed from the neck down, no longer even able to breathe unassisted, lingering on for years as a completely helpless quadriplegic. Would it have been better for the doctors to have granted him his original wish, just after he'd wakened from the accident, and let him go gentle into that good night? Or what about Terri Schiavo, the woman who entered a "persistent vegetative state" after an incident of cardiac arrest and subsequent coma? Was it morally correct for her parents to fight to keep her alive, to continue to feed her, to keep her husband Michael from moving on with his own life indefinitely -- or did the courts make the fitting and proper decision to withhold food and water from her until she passed away? What of the many very old people who linger on for months or years, blind, deaf, senile, incontinent, incapable of enjoying anything resembling "quality of life" but just as incapable of bringing their lives to an end? Would it not be better to keep the beauty of their lives from sliding into jangling discord by choosing to impose a simple coda?

If you think of it, the practice of euthanizing individuals with low quality of life issues could be much more widely applied. Our prisons are vastly overcrowded, and there are a whole lot of serial predators in jail who could make the world a better place simply by never waking up again. People in mental institutions who had no hope of improvement would no longer be tortured by living with severe mental disorders. We could do away with the homeless problem in a single night by going under bridges and overpasses and through tent cities, spreading gentle death in our wake. Illegal immigration would slow to a trickle if we were to find and euthanize all those who had entered our country illegally. I hope you can see where I'm going with this; legalized euthanasia is a rabbit hole that yawns open all the way to China, because once a culture makes it permissible to end lives that are in some way inconvenient or imperfect, how does that culture halt the progression toward euthanizing people with polydactyly, albinism, vitiligo, elliptocytosis, cleft palates, depression, diabetes, even the wrong color of eyes?

As I see it, the key difference between Baby Gammy's parents and the couple I know, or between those who are in favor of legalizing euthanasia and those who find the idea abhorrent, is a specific difference in the way they view human beings. One group primarily views other humans in terms of their utility, and the other values human beings as people with unique individual worth.

It's quite common to see the "human utility" school of thought in the Western world. You see it in social behavior, in the way people cocoon themselves in comfort in their homes and never get to know their neighbors, because they don't need anything from them. You see it in politics, when a first world nation merely watches a third world country go through the hell and devastation of war or plague, declining to intervene because doing so would be costly and that country has no resources it wants. You see it in medicine, where abortion as a form of birth control has become commonplace. You see it in business practices ("human resources," anyone?), in education, and in law. You definitely see it in Hollywood, where attractive and accomplished people are constantly used as though they were talent vending machines, and the unwritten motto seems to be "What have you done for me lately?"

You could even make the argument that Hollywood's view of human utility sometimes contributes to the death of its talent pool. In fact, I think I will.

Let's take a recent example. A well-known, well-loved actor and comedian, the recipient of multiple awards for entertainment excellence, enters a dark period of his life. His physical health has not been ideal for several years and he has financial obligations from surgeries and treatment, he has been working on film after film to make money, the new television show he headed -- the closest thing to a steady paycheck in acting -- was cancelled after a single season, he's been struggling to maintain his sobriety, and recently he's discovered that the source of his deepening depression is a brain disease from which he will never recover. And as he sits still and lets the depression whisper poisonously disordered thoughts and ideas into his ear, he begins to think as Hollywood people think, in terms of human utility. He thinks of his current and former wives, his children, and other family members who depend on him for their support. He feels the weight of all the people whom he employs -- publicists, lawyers, personal assistants, housekeepers, security details -- as well as those who are indirectly employed because of his performances -- other actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, foley artists, caterers, etc. He thinks of the specific talent he has honed, on which all this hinges -- a lightning-quick, flexible mind, highly observant and able to put together odd connections at a moment's notice -- and how his doctors have recently informed him that his mind and body are destined to slow, to tremble and break down, until eventually he reaches a point of senility. He thinks of how he will progress from a highly successful, contributing member of elite society to a patient barely able to walk, from a man who can provide for others to a man who will impose a burden on his family's finances as his health becomes worse and worse. In terms of his simple utility to others, he perceives he will become a net negative. And one particular evening, when he is alone with these thoughts, the depression whispers to him, "You know what you have to do, and you have to do it now, while you still can. It doesn't have to be a complex plan. Just do what you do best. Improvise."

Thus it is that a man who so obviously saw the individual worth of other people -- who brought humor and hope to sick children and quadriplegics and active-duty members of the military, who regularly gave away huge sums of money from his performances to help the poor, homeless and distressed -- was incapable, in the end, of seeing the singularly bright glow of his own individual worth. All he saw was that, in the eyes of the world, he would eventually become useless to other people. And rather than allowing the people who loved him to show him another viewpoint, to let him see how much he was valued, he took his own life.

What is individual worth? It is the recognition that every human life, regardless of its "quality" or its utility to others, is precious and irreplaceable. It is the understanding that we give our kindness and support to others, not because they can do something for us, but because we love and cherish them, because it is an honor and a privilege to serve another human being. It is echoed in the words of the traditional Christian marriage vow, that each spouse takes the other not just for the good times, but "for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." It is the knowledge that if the worth of every soul is great in the sight of God, how should it be any different in the sight of man?

As a Mormon, I believe that human beings -- all human beings -- are spirit children of God who once lived in His presence, and who therefore have within them the seeds of deity. Our lives here on earth are imperfect and messy, and our minds and bodies have various problems, but that is largely because we are being subjected to individual tests, tailored to our specific strengths and weaknesses and designed to help us fulfill our potential to become like God. This way of thinking about oneself, about other people, allows very little admittance for the concept of human utility, and no admittance for the concept of brooming people aside when they become a burden. Whether or not we see it, even the most wretched human life on this planet has infinite worth and glorious potential, and the only lasting tragedy is to see that potential wasted and destroyed.

In his book The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship .... You have never talked to a mere mortal." One wonders if the biological parents of Baby Gammy might perceive their discarded son a bit differently if they could see past his disability, past the inevitable imperfections that are part of being human, and grasp his individual worth -- if, even for a moment, they could catch a glimpse of the sort of being he is destined to become. But that level of perception of other people is hard to achieve when you're occupied with thoughts of ways to use them.


MarieC said...

Lovely, well-put, and thought provoking!!

Soozcat said...

Thanks, Marie. Obviously I've got strong opinions on this subject...