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Once we deny the inherent dignity of an unborn human being — rejecting the sanctity of unborn life solely on the basis of our own desire not to have or be responsible for that human being once born — we can’t legitimately close the barn door after the child is toddling around among us and retroactively imbue it with inherent dignity that must be respected from that point on.

Editor's note: The following article by Ed Gantt was previously published by Brigham Young University's Wheatley Institution. It is the first of a two-part series, and readers can find the second article at wheatley.byu.edu/articles.

In the 1920 book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (“Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy Life”), jurist Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Höche coined the phrase Lebensunwertes Leben or “life unworthy of life.” The book was a pseudoscientific argument for the systematic elimination from society of those who were deemed to be unfit, disabled, mentally defective and racially suspect. It was not an unusual work for the times, nor was it outside the mainstream of thinking in the worldwide eugenics movement that began in earnest with the writings of Francis Galton in the late 1800s. Binding and Höche’s book did serve, however, as a mainstay resource for Nazi racial science over the following two decades.

Binding and Höche begin their treatise by asserting the moral acceptability of suicide and assisted suicide. They then move to a defense of killing those whose physical conditions or intractable infirmities render them unfit in the struggle for life, a drain on its precious and limited resources — resources that would be better spent in the service of those more fit specimens who have, as such, more promising futures. The book ends with a scientistic prophecy about the onset of a new, more enlightened age in which traditional sensibilities and values will give way to a “higher morality:”

“There was a time, now considered barbaric, in which eliminating those who were born unfit for life, or who later became so, was taken for granted. Then came the phase, continuing into the present, in which … preserving every existence, no matter how worthless, stood as the highest moral value. A new age will arrive — operating with a higher morality and with great sacrifice — which will actually give up the requirements of an exaggerated humanism and overvaluation of mere existence.”

It seems rather than the dawn of a new age, Binding and Höche were actually anticipating a return to a more ancient era, a time before Christianity and its attendant moral worldview made a muddle of things by suggesting all human life was beloved by God and, therefore, sacred. Upon even casual historical reflection, it is hard to argue the world the Third Reich ushered in — and the resultant worldwide conflagration it sparked — did not reflect the return of an earlier and more brutally terrifying time.

Many would like to believe after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the eugenics movement — and the utopic urges at its roots — would be universally acknowledged as a thing of the past, a sort of cancerous moral tumor which serious people would have by now resolutely and surgically cut away. Unfortunately, such does not appear to be the case. I have spent the past decade of my professional career studying the history of the eugenics movement, both pre- and post-World War II, and writing scholarly articles expressing my concerns about the role the psychology and related social sciences have played (and, I believe, continue to play) in fostering a cultural and intellectual atmosphere conducive to nihilism and, thereby, congenial to eugenics. The terrifying prospects of the rebirth of a program of eugenics — whether formally through state-sponsorship or more informally through everyday individual choices — trouble me deeply. Indeed, I believe it to be something that should trouble everyone, or, at least, anyone whose conscience has not become utterly numbed to the evil attendant to our growing culture of death.

Recently, Ruth Marcus, a famous and influential editorial writer at the Washington Post, penned an argument for the right to selective abortion, particularly in cases where the unborn child has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. There is no time in a short note such as this to adequately address all of the conceptual problems and moral hazards running throughout her piece, so I will limit myself to commenting on only one particular quote. Marcus writes:

“Certainly, to be a parent is to take the risks that accompany parenting; you love your child for who she is, not what you want her to be. Accepting that essential truth is different from compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised. Most children with Down syndrome have mild to moderate cognitive impairment, meaning an IQ between 55 and 70 (mild) or between 35 and 55 (moderate). This means limited capacity for independent living and financial security; Down syndrome is life-altering for the entire family. I’m going to be blunt here: That was not the child I wanted. That was not the choice I would have made.”

Here we have the ethos of “life unworthy of life” illustrated quite openly, albeit without the bother of the full implications of such reasoning being carried out or made explicit. You see, the ethos of “life unworthy of life” does not stop at assessing (in utilitarian fashion) the probable worth of an unborn child’s future existence, but rather continues onward to offer such assessments at any point in life generally. That is, were a child born healthy and unimpaired but to sustain, say around the age of 12, a serious brain injury resulting in cognitive impairment on a par with moderate Down syndrome, there is no reason (given the premises of the basic argument and its denial of the intrinsic worth and dignity of human life) not to declare the child’s existence and future to be “life unworthy of life” and thereby sanction its extinction. After all, if a child yet unborn is facing a life sentence of lower cognitive capacity by virtue of a medical condition and is thus worthy of destruction, then the same necessarily holds true for anyone who, at any time, is subject to a similarly impairing medical condition. The logic is both merciless and inexorable.

Once we deny the inherent dignity of an unborn human being — rejecting the sanctity of unborn life solely on the basis of our own desire not to have or be responsible for that human being once born — we can’t legitimately close the barn door after the child is toddling around among us and retroactively imbue it with inherent dignity that must be respected from that point on. The dignity of that person, and their worthiness of our deepest respect and care, either has been there all along or it is something entirely contingent that rests solely on our individual whim to bestow or revoke as we happen to choose.

Our assessment of the worth of another human being, no matter how fragile the body or how impaired the mind might prove to be, simply must not rest on the slippery slope suppositions intrinsic to any means-ends mentality bent relentlessly to calculating the costs and benefits another human being’s existence might entail relative to our own lives and desires. Indeed, the intellectual mistake that fuels the moral muddle of eugenicism is perhaps most clearly evident in its pervasive, scientistic assumption that the most serious matters surrounding the “qualities” of life are sufficiently addressed simply by counting up certain of its “quantities” (e.g., IQ scores, range of life choices, health care costs, etc.) and comparing against some sliding scale of individual desire.

What an awesome power it is we take upon ourselves in advocating for abortion-on-demand, whether because of a desire to minimize personal inconveniences or out of a fear of imperfections. In so doing, not only do we make far-reaching decisions about what sort of human beings we will countenance as human beings, but we do so by appropriating to ourselves the awesome power to decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t — though with little regard for the responsibility intrinsic to the exercise of such power. What an awesome power it is, this power to confer human status and the moral worth attendant on whomever we wish and to deny it whenever we wish, for whatever reason we wish.

What deep self-deception must lie behind the benevolent but self-serving language we use to justify our denial of the humanity of those most vulnerable, whose existence we fear will prove inconvenient to our own. The tainted terminology of Nazi eugenics and racial science, Lebensunwertes Leben, has been replaced in our day with the less threatening, more benevolent-sounding “low quality of life.”

25 comments on this story

I suspect we have done so in order to further delude ourselves that our choice to abort an unwanted child — particularly one deemed defective and unfit and thus doomed to a low quality life — is actually an act of courage undertaken on their behalf, an act meant to save them in some fundamental way from having to be the sort of imperfect beings we know they wouldn’t have wanted to be anyway. One cannot help but wonder, though, exactly whose quality of life is of paramount importance in the ruthless calculus of the abortionist cum eugenicist. But, then again, one needn’t wonder too long given the obviousness of the answer.