The seamless vision of life, as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin once noted, is the only way to insure individual dignity. We are only as strong as the weakest links in our human chain, so the way we treat the young, the sick and the elderly is the truest bell weather of our evolution as a compassionate society.
Lately, though, that compassion has been lacking, and I suspect it’s due in no small part to our cavalier attitude toward unborn life. If you are capable of dehumanizing something at its most elemental level and packaging it as a wholly dependent appendage of a woman, it’s a short step from there to seeing older and ailing Americans as dependent appendages of society.
Of course, we don’t put it in exactly those terms. No, we’re a lot smarter than that, which is how the terms “pro-choice” and “death with dignity” entered the popular lexicon. In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty gives a fairly good summary of the nihilistic game plan so many of the pro-choice and pro-euthanasia people subscribe to: “When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
So when the rights brigade start on about the “right to choose” and the “right to die” and the “right to be left alone,” they are asserting dominion over the language that they use to make their narrow and specific points. But those who oppose abortion are not generally allowed to call ourselves “pro-life” in the media, as I myself found out when I once put that term in a column and it miraculously morphed into “anti-abortion.” Humpty was apparently a social progressive.
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To those of you who kept reading after you heard the word “abortion,” my thanks. And to reward you for your perseverance, I will now get to the point.
Recently, a young woman named Brittany Maynard took her own life. I would have said “killed herself” but that doesn’t fully express the motivation behind her act. Brittany was suffering from a terminal form of cancer, and decided that she didn’t want to put herself or her family through the final months of debilitating pain. I understand that, of course, and I have some empathy for her predicament given the fact that my father died a long and lingering death from lung cancer. It was a time of pain and horror.
What I don’t understand is the way that Brittany announced to the world, almost as if she were challenging us to evolve to some higher level of consciousness, that she would take ownership of her own presence on this earth and its significance. Brittany did not kill herself. She “took” back what she thought she owned, her life. This presupposes that her highest obligation was to herself, and that she was her own “keeper,” so to speak. That is a dangerous point of view, because it flows directly from the idea that we are all separate, unconnected islands in this vast ocean of humanity and are ultimately alone.
This is the same mentality that motivated Ezekiel Emmanuel to write his notorious essay in the Atlantic, expressing a hope that he would die by the age of 70 so as not to “burden” society. At least Emmanuel was considering the impact his life would have on others, albeit in a very negative way. He didn’t want to upset anyone, so he made a vow to bow out, stage left, when he became “troublesome” to his family and friends. I suspect that if he’d asked, those friends and family would have begged him to complete the contract he’d made with God and science and keep the machine operating until its natural end. I’m fairly certain that what he viewed as a potential burden was, for them, a gift. But that wouldn’t have advanced his almost Darwinian view of survival.
As someone whose brother took his own life for reasons that, to this day, we do not know, I am fully aware of the power of autonomy. Brittany Maynard said that she felt less fearful because she could choose the hour and moment of her death. And as someone whose father was in excruciating pain and yet raged against the dying of the light, at the end, I know how strong the survival instinct can be if we don’t extinguish it with rhetoric about “dignified deaths.”
This past week, folks in Philadelphia heard the story of a little boy who was beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend, an act so vile that even those of us who’ve been jaded by daily violence had to take a step back in horror. While there is no direct connection between the evil in a criminal’s soul and the desire to escape a painful death, both acts exist on the same continuum which quantifies the value of a life by how much pleasure it gives us.
To me, true dignity lies in cherishing the life that we are given in custody, whether in our wombs or in ourselves. It exists even in the face of pain and regret for lost possibilities.
Dylan Thomas wrote “and death shall have no dominion.”
We, the defiant steel links in the human chain, can be proof of that.
©2014 Philadelphia Daily News