Eve asked what people think of Helen Rittelmeyer’s article making a conservative argument for disability activism. She says that if someone offered a cure for her severely disabled sister her family probably wouldn’t take it, because they love her the way she is. Helen goes on to argue that loving the disabled this way is better to them than pushing them towards independence and autonomy; many of them will never achieve it, and it encourages the view that a dependant is somehow less human. She also urges us not to be so afraid of the fact that this means suffering. Although she shies away from shallow “suffering builds character” formulations, she says that taking the harder path can bring other benefits, and “When the compensating benefit is love, the answer is easy.”
This post intersects with another line of thought I’ve been having lately, brought along by the renewed focus on abortion in the media and the blogosphere. I’ve been nagged by a memory of a time when I was about eight years old, and my mother first explained the whole abortion debate to me. My mother is pro-choice, and so she explained it from that point of view; but I asked her why, given the contention over the life of the fetus, a woman who didn’t want to raise a child couldn’t just put it up for adoption. My mother said something like, “But when you have a baby you feel such a strong attachment, it’s just unbearable to give it up.”
I think this has stuck in my mind all these years partly because, for all the abortion debates I’ve heard or read, I don’t recall anyone else addressing this problem quite so directly. Most pro-choice arguments seem to focus on rights, and thus wheel off into ungainly analogies about dying violinists and whatnot. And some feminists seem suspicious of the idea of a strong innate mother-love to begin with. But it seems to me that without it, the argument for total free choice is actually harder to make. Most pregnancies entail some physical hardship, but in the modern world it is generally not greater than some of the other hardships that obeying the law inflicts on us, like military conscription, lengthy jury duty, paying taxes for undeserving causes and not being able to steal when you have no money. Some intangible emotional hardship, therefore, seems required in order to put unwanted pregnancy up there with torture and rape as experiences that any person has a natural right not to suffer.
But I think the other reason the comment stuck in my mind is the picture of mother-love that it offers — a picture that is not, when it comes to it, entirely positive. It makes getting pregnant at the wrong time sound sort of like falling in love with the wrong guy: you can’t live with him and you can’t stand to see anyone else live with him, so you feel a dark temptation to rub him out. In that way, some abortions may actually be crimes of passion.
But a more benevolent way of looking at it, which is probably more the case with my mother, is that mother-love entails a profound fear of the child suffering. If you give it up for adoption, you certainly run the risk that it will suffer badly: it might never be adopted, or it might be adopted by crazy people. Moreover, a mother who decides to keep the baby because of the tortured I-don’t-want-it-but-I-do feelings described earlier may be setting it up for a pretty difficult childhood also. I think my mother’s point of view, based on some other comments she’s made, is that some people are better off aborted than being raised by certain parents.
So in settling on love as a basis for bioethics, Helen is certainly hanging her position on one of the most complex and contested words in the English language. But for all that she talks about suffering, Helen still doesn’t quite directly address the question of the suffering of the disabled person — whether disabled physically or by a lack of a functioning family. Doesn’t love at least entail some aspect of not wanting to see a person suffer? Is every person who wishes to die really suffering from inadequate love, or does the natural instinct to end suffering sometimes overpower even that?
I also wanted to make a couple of theological points about the piece. In her link to it, Eve notes that “when Christ appeared to the apostles in His glory, the glorified body still bore the wounds of crucifixion.” True, but weighed against that is the fact that Christ spent much of his earthly ministry curing disabilities, including blindness, deafness and paralysis. Granted, there’s a pretty big difference between that and the modern ministrations of medical science, but it does seem to challenge Helen’s claim that disabilities are essential to a person’s self. Seeing “an imaginary version of that person minus his disability” actually seems to be a pretty big part of the Kingdom vision.
The question of a person’s ultimate condition gets even knottier when it comes to abortion. Certainly a materialist view of death as being simple non-existence can make it seem preferable to a life of suffering, and indeed, makes it not seem all that different from the state of being a barely-existent embryo. But a Christian view of the afterlife doesn’t necessarily help define what it is that’s so bad about death. I recall back when the Slacktivist was starting through the Left Behind novels (amazingly, he’s still at it!), the Rapture was described as taking unborn fetuses from their mothers’ wombs. The Slacktivist pointed out that this was making an anti-abortion point by asserting that fetuses do have souls. But a commenter pointed out that this makes abortion seem like doing a baby a favor: after all, they get straight to heaven this way, while letting them grow up just gives them an opportunity to damn themselves.
It is perhaps a measure of how much we are all Baptists now that I’ve never heard a pedobaptist make the obvious rejoinder to this, which is that a baby probably isn’t going to get to heaven without being baptized. To be fair, last I heard the Catholic Church itself is unclear about what happens to unbaptized infants, so that may be speaking out of turn. But it does seem that, in order to make a truly pro-life argument, one has to see life as more than a booby-trap on the road to heaven.
I noted in an earlier post — which, not coincidentally, also brought up mothering — that there is a strain of thought in the New Testament to the effect that living, suffering and dying are necessary steps toward the next phase of existence, one closer to God. And yet at the same time, it still generally regards the infliction of suffering as a sin and an outgrowth of a fallen world. And even less helpfully, despite the fact that infant mortality was extremely high back then it never brings up the question of whether a dead infant has, once and for all, been deprived of the opportunity to go through that process.
I should say that the fact that there are many people living difficult lives, who nonetheless assert they are worth it, gives me pause about the whole “abort to preempt suffering” idea. It does seem like going overboard with the whole children are horrendously fragile concept that has grown in the last 150 years or so. So despite my criticisms, I think Helen makes some valuable points here. It does, however, feel like it needs some filling out (which I guess the “towards” in the title is pretty much admitting).