By William Peace
Editor’s note. The following was written as a reply to “What Should we do about Severely Impaired Babies,” written by bioethicist Udo Schuklenk. It first appeared here and reprinted by Alex Schadenberg on his blog.
In the Kingston Whig (May 9, 2014) I read an editorial by Udo Schuklenk who teaches bioethics at Queen’s University. Schuklenk’s, “What Should We do About Severely Impaired babies?” made me lose sleep last night.
Utilitarianism has its hooks into the health industrial complex, mainstream press, and contemporary popular culture. Access to health care is increasingly based on the lives we perceive as being worth living. This is a dangerous if not a deadly line of thought for vulnerable populations. I am one of those people whose life is not worth living in the estimation of many—paging Peter Singer at Princeton University and all those at the University of Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. So whose life lacks value? Severely disabled infants, elderly people with Alzheimer’s Disease, those with a profound cognitive deficit, vent dependent quadriplegics, and many other costly and undesirable human beings. This makes me shudder. It is sobering and distressing to know my existence is unwanted. It is frightening to know some, highly educated others, think my life has no value and would like to end my suffering.
It does not take a great deal of insight to establish whose life is worth living. All those that are productive and contribute to society in a very narrow sense have value: bipedal people with typical cognition who are employed and supposedly fully autonomous. What utilitarianism fosters is a business model of life or bottom line approach that is essentially heartless, unimaginative, and draconian. Compassion in health care? Forget it. All hail modern medical science and expensive high tech diagnostic tools. Of course the proviso is only those we value have access to high priced high profit medical technology. Worse, we can use that technology to prevent expensive, oops, I mean severely disabled infants from existing. Schuklenk celebrates prenatal testing.
“Every year a small number of fetuses are carried to term who have no reasonable chance of living a life worth living. They are so severely impaired that they will live a miserable, short life until they eventually expire. The good news is that, courtesy of prenatal screening, only few such births take place and the numbers are decreasing. We have some data from the Netherlands, where a few hundred out of about 200,000 newborns annually tend to fall into this category.”
What Schuklenk is celebrating is a new form Eugenics. In stating this I just lost my bioethicists and neonatology readership. When I use the E word bioethicists and neonatologist shut down. These heath care professionals believe my views are offensive and unbalanced. Surely I must be a religious fundamentalist whose faith and adherence to religious doctrine clouds my thought. Worse, some neonatologists will furiously and assert “I am not Nazi” when asked probing ethical questions. There is no effort to look beyond the narrow confines of the institution where they ply their trade. This enables a scholar such as Schuklenk to wonder:
“Would it make much sense to undertake significant surgery with the – unlikely but possible – result that the newborn might live a miserable life for another year or two before his impairment eventually catches up with him and kills him? Should we withdraw nutrition and hydration while providing palliative care so that he doesn’t suffer? Should we actively terminate his life to end his nightmare quickly and painlessly, as well as that of his parents?”
I find the above stunning. Schuklenk is a widely published philosopher and I cannot help but ask what if any experience does he have among those that live and thrive with severe disabilities. Has he ever talked to a vent dependent quadriplegic? Spent time at a group home? Talked to people who care for a beloved elderly parent with dementia? Has he ever thought about the contribution those with a profound disability can make to society? I suspect the answer to all these questions is a resounding no. This is in part why I find utilitarian philosophers dangerous. They have not seen the power and creativity of the disability experience. They could not grasp that my entire conception of disability radically changed because of my exposure to a vibrant, funny, and profoundly disabled young woman who would be deemed non verbal by neurologists. They do not see what Eva Kittay calls emotional labor. They do not get why I am comfortable using the word Eugenics. You see when I was an undergraduate the most common person
using a wheelchair was a person with spina bifida. I have not met a man or woman with spina bifida in a decade. Unlike Schuklenk I do not celebrate prenatal testing. I cannot celebrate the 93% termination rate when spina bifida is identified prenatally. The decision a woman makes to terminate a pregnancy is not done in a social vacuum. If 93% of women terminate such a pregnancy it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to reject what virtually all women do in a comparable situation.
What Schuklenk fails to consider is that life with a disability, even the most severe of disabilities contains great value. Like many others he cannot make the required intellectual leap in logic. Disability is bad. Disability must be eradicated. Hence he can reasonably argue that health care professionals must give up the sanctity of life doctrine and replace it with a quality-of-life ethic.
“There is no point in maintaining human life for the sake of it if that human life cannot enjoy a moment of its existence and is trapped in a never-ending cycle of immense pain and suffering. A quality-of-life ethics would not merely ask ‘do you exist’, but ‘do you have a life worth living?’, or ‘will you have a life worth living?’”
What is conveniently overlooked is the long and dismal history associated with disability. When it comes to disability—the social and physical implications—most will think a person such as myself has a very poor “quality of life ethic.” People often assume I am unemployed and asexual. People are often taken aback that I have a PhD from Columbia University. People are shocked to learn that I have a son, was married and divorced. In fact I am routinely asked “are you the biological father”. Essentially, the typical is thought to be beyond my grasp. What people see is all that I cannot do. First and foremost is my inability to walk. Hence I routinely joke that bipedalism is grossly over rated. Behind this joke, a pointed joke few get, is the fact that quality of life ethic includes a myriad, if not, all people with a disability. This is wrong and the consequences are built upon 100 years of being a marginalized other.
I find the cultural response to disability disheartening and the power imbalance between myself, bioethicists and health care professionals to be profound. Barbara Farlow who brought the editorial by Schuklenk to my attention is correct when she asserted that the mere fact the prestigious American Thoracic Society entertained such a discussion is deeply problematic. Worse, the argument against Schuklenk was framed strictly within religious terms and utilized an amorphous concept of dignity. This I cannot help but to conclude is not just misleading but disingenuous—a straw man approach to debating.
The editorial by Schuklenk reminded me of Harriet McBryde Johnson’s famous debate with Peter Singer. Her enlightening exchange brought Johnson into the nation spot light. It helped that she whipped Singer in her public debate with him. An unabashed atheist Johnson, dismissed religious claims about the sanctity of life. She did not invoke the slippery slope. Instead, she asserted her humanity. How dare you or anyone else question or subvert the quality of my life. I am a human being and no human should be forced to defend their humanity, There is no such thing as a nonperson. So called non-persons or those that think certain thresholds must be obtained to be considered human are missing a very basic aspect of humanity—disability and difference is a natural part of the human experience. It is in fact good for the human species. And it has been ever present. It need not be eradicated.
After more than 40 years of progressive legislation designed to empower people with a disability, the battle for equal rights remains very much an uphill battle. For Harriet McBryde Johnson, myself and all those with a disability that have the gall to assert their humanity we take our lives seriously. We value our existence. She wrote that Singer:
“insisted he doesn’t want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along, and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened. Whenever I try to wrap my head around his tight syllogisms, my brain gets so fried it’s—almost fun. Mercy! It’s like Alice in Wonderland. No, having leapt down the rabbit hole and landed in this place, I find things becoming curiouser and curiouser.”
The fact is the presence or absence of a disability provides no indication about a human being’s quality of life. I know more than a few people with no disability whose quality of life is less than ideal. I know many people with a disability whose quality of life is envious. Life is not about thresholds we must reach but rather about social inter connectedness and doing the best we as human beings can do.
(See also ”Unspeakable Conversations”)