Commentary by Shawn Mitchell
I’m thinking about eugenics. Why such a cheery topic, one that evokes Nazi experiments and dyspeptic novels? Because, haven’t you heard? Assisted suicide is the new killer thing. Colorado just adapted it, and states and nations everywhere are tiptoeing towards joining the cool crowd.
But it just struck me to wonder how far removed we really are from the worst things you can say about eugenics. Good genes. Selecting sex and mates to improve the gene pool as an attempted means to enhance human life. Or, eliminating undesirables to make life smoother and more convenient.
Assisted suicide is defended as the ultimate expression of autonomy by terminal patients who want to face their end on their own terms. In many cases, it may be just that. But these human chapters exist in a context. A person’s end days are surrounded by families, some loving, some exhausted, some aloof and burdened. Surrounded by doctors and nurses and caregivers. Shadowed by institutions and costs and financial worries for loved ones.
It is not simply speculation or doomsaying to observe these contexts can and have produced pressures, subtle and overt, on grandma or grandpa to consider the nobility and selflessness of erasing themselves. As the habit spreads in society’s lifeblood, the reasons for leaping expand from terminal illness to depression, chronic pain, addiction. And the pressures mount until it’s not always clear how voluntary the decision is. So we get the tragic specter of elderly European patients entering the hospital wearing bracelets that say: “Do not euthanize me.”
The currents that swirl in these contexts make these men and women literally fear homicide. That may be an argument or not against allowing the autonomy and humane assistance that are the selling points of assisted suicide. But, it is certainly cause to reflect on the costs and consequences of formalizing it, normalizing it, and becoming inured to it. Human and institutional convenience can come to outweigh humanity and sought after dignity.
Bounce backward now to the other end of life, the beginning. Common practice, especially for mothers over a certain age, is to screen for genetic defects and to “provide information” so parents can “make informed choices.” This is all clean, anodyne language, but in practice, it leads to trends where reportedly, in Europe, over 90% of fetuses diagnosed with down syndrome are aborted. In the United States the rate is closer to 70%. Some observers and publications see a world where shortly down syndrome will be virtually nonexistent.
People hold different views on the morality or the good or bad effects of those trends. There is a growing counter voice of parents who have raised developmentally disabled children. They talk about the unknowable love and life lessons that became part of their lives. But again, the context generates its own expectations, and family, friends, and institutions may be part of the swirl that instills the question why? Why would caring parents ever choose to bring a child into a saddled life?
Others will have answers, deeply thought and clearly articulated. Just as related concerns get exchanged in the discussion of end of life issues. But back to the thought that prompted this reflection: Is our discussion any more humane, any less chilling, any less fraught with peril and the blurring of moral lines than whatever must have been in the heads of people who thought eugenics was a good idea? I think likely not.