Disability and humanity

Vaughan Olliffe on our ambiguous relationship with disability and the value of every life.

Earlier this year, Richard Dawkins tweeted that it would be immoral not to abort a baby if you knew it had Down Syndrome. While his comments caused outrage, the reality is that the abortion of Down Syndrome babies is nothing if not routine, with 67% of babies with the condition aborted in the USA. The figure is higher in Australia and Europe. The high rate of these abortions is in large part due to the prevalent belief that the life of a person with a disability is not as valuable as one without.

Dawkins’ tweets and the reactions to them reveal our ambiguous relationship with disability, which is worth reflecting on in a week where we celebrate International Day of People with Disability. For Dawkins, the key question was not ‘is the baby human?’ but would the birth of the child with Down Syndrome lead to a life of suffering. Dawkins here is in agreement with the work of ethicist Peter Singer who argues that simply being born human is not enough to make someone a person. He claims that the life of a child with a disability is most likely one of preventable suffering for both them and their parents. It is therefore right, says Singer, to abort a baby with a disability and try again for a ‘normal’ child.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas reveals what is behind this attitude. When we equate disability with suffering what we are actually saying is that the non-disabled ‘we’ would not want to live like that. Even if there is suffering within the life of a person with a disability we should consider the implications of not allowing that life to progress.

To abort a foetus with a potential disability actually makes a profound statement about the value we place on such lives. John Wyatt suggests that to routinely abort foetuses simply because they are disabled communicates an implicit message about the worth of people with disabilities whether we want it to or not. We are not simply a society of autonomous individuals: what we do affects others.

Yet both Singer and Dawkins insist that they are not devaluing the lives of people with disabilities. Both would benefit, however, from listening more closely to what people with disabilities have to say on the subject.

In The New York Times, disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson rejects Singer’s claim that his position means no disrespect to people with disabilities as a whole. For while Singer claims that his views have nothing to do with her or any particular person with a disability, and that such individuals should not feel threatened by his position. Johnson McBryde is, unsurprisingly, not convinced. “Whenever I try to wrap my head around his tight string of syllogisms, my brain gets so fried,” she says.

McBryde Johnson also does not recognise her own life in Singer’s description of the suffering endured by disabled people. Rather, she says, “We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them.”

McBryde Johnson’s words challenge Singer’s implicit assumption that the lives of people with disabilities are defined by suffering and are therefore of lesser value than the lives of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ people. This is an echo of ancient Greco-Roman culture where health and physical fitness were regarded as essential to human dignity and flourishing. Infants with a disability were often left to die following birth, with philosophers such as Aristotle and Seneca endorsing the practice.

Our discomfort with the idea of infanticide, says Singer, comes from the legacy of the Christian belief in the sanctity-of-life. This, he argues, should be abandoned since he holds that humankind is not particularly special.

Singer is right in pointing out that the change in our attitude towards people with disabilities is the legacy of Christianity. The early Christians not only rejected the practice of exposing infants with a disability but would also rescue babies that had been left to die. They did this because they believed that all people were made in the image of God. It was this status that delivered human dignity and meant that life was sacred.

Dawkins and Singer believe that minimising disability would minimise suffering. Some might argue that the abortion of the disabled foetus could be in the service of a greater good: the elimination of disability, and the suffering it apparently causes. But we also need to consider what might be lost in the process. Part of the package of a culture that sees value in every human life, regardless of what each individual can do, is a costly commitment to care for the weak and vulnerable. What Singer fails to account for is how the routine taking of human life might in fact represent a hardening of our hearts towards others. The broad implications of this position are alarming.

People with disabilities are in fact like us and, therefore, deserve our respect and care and should be regarded as infinitely valuable.

Theologian Oliver O’Donovan argues that we should not deliberate over what characteristics make someone a ‘person’. Instead we start with a commitment to treat all humans as persons, even those still in the womb but whom we’ve discovered to be potentially carrying a disability. When we commit to knowing and loving someone we can discover within them the personhood that all humans possess. When we take this approach, we can recognise that people with disabilities are in fact like us and, therefore, deserve our respect and care and should be regarded as infinitely valuable.

A society that enthusiastically affirms rights for people with disabilities at the same time as it consistently destroys foetuses with the same conditions reveals an ambivalence towards such people whom we tolerate rather than embrace. To judge personhood on capacity becomes a way of designating the ‘other’ who, being so unlike me, does not qualify for my love and care and protection. If we want to remain a welcoming and caring society, then rather than excluding people, we need to practice welcome and care towards those who are the most vulnerable among us.

This represents a difficult and challenging road. It may well be the measure of the health of our collective soul.

Vaughan Olliffe is a theology student who works part-time at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article originally appeared in On Line Opinion.