I was always intuitively and viscerally upset whenever women who had suffered miscarriages would lament well-intentioned people having attempted to console them with the words, “You can try again.”
Like Job’s “friends”, such people unfortunately misunderstood the nature of the situation so profoundly as to be unable to offer a meaningful response to those suffering this loss.
Having understood it intuitively, I also wanted to try to understand as rationally as possible why saying, “You can try again” is so inappropriate.
That is when I came upon this compelling paragraph by bioethicist Robert Spaemann who tackles various intellectual positions that would seek to eject members from the human family.
The philosopher Robert Spaemann has taught me to understand how there are two kinds of dignity. First, there is the universal dignity that all persons have by virtue of being human. This is also discussed within bioethics as fundamental human equality. Secondly, there is dignity that accords with a person’s particular worthiness owing to the virtue of an office, rank, or moral excellence.
Some healthcare professionals purport to have such neutrality and objectivity so to be inclined to treat every person equally according to the first kind of universal dignity characteristic of all human beings.
But persons, being persons, have a natural regard for both kinds of dignity.
This evening I read a chapter from Gilbert Meilaender’s book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life: Essays and Reflections.
Here is one paragraph that particularly captured my attention:
Thus, although compassion surely moves us to try to relieve suffering, there are things we ought not to do even for that worthy end–actions that would not honour or respect our shared human condition. One of the terrible truths that governs the shape of our lives is that somethings there is suffering we are unable–within the limits of morality–entirely to relieve. Hence, the maxim that must govern and shape our compassion should be “maximize care,” which may not always be quite the same as “minimize suffering.”
A few days ago, I attended a conference at which I met a Venezuelan currently in exile in the U.K.
This young man is passionate about politics and philosophy.
When I shared with him about some of the current debates in Canadian politics concerning bioethics, he was perplexed.
Essentially he expressed his perplexity as follows: My country is a mess. There is massive corruption, countless human rights violations, and many basic needs of citizens are unmet. We imagine that Canada is so much more advanced. Yet, you seem to be divided on the most fundamental questions.
Indeed, Canadians are divided about what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be married, to be a person, to be alive.
Despite industrial development, material prosperity, and impressive longevity, we are still unsure about a lot of the basics.
It is revealing that someone from Venezuela can question our supposed advancement in this way.
After nearly 200 days of blogging about death every day, where is this leading?
I find myself becoming fascinated and absorbed by the topic of the resurrection of the dead.
As a friend remarked to me the other day, this is one of the most fundamental beliefs underlying our civilization and yet, it is a teaching about which most people are, if they are being honest about it, rather incredulous or indifferent.
My very preliminary hypothesis is that belief in resurrection is subliminally decisive to how we live and that it has wide-ranging implications in ethics, technology, and culture.
To play with these ideas, we can ask: What difference does it make whether or not we believe in a resurrection of the dead? What are the practical consequences in our lives of its possibility or impossibility?
Another question: If people believed in the resurrection of the body, what would it change in our public bioethics?
I do not yet have many answers to propose. However, my first intuition is that the precariousness of our embodiedness needs redemption.
Whether this redemption is possible and whether we stake (or mistake) our hope about it in the correct place is, I think, a more interesting and practical question than many realize.
I just finished re-reading Leon Kass’s splendid essay, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?“
I was reminded of that 2001 piece when I read this interview published yesterday about Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput’s new book Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living.
Leon Kass begins his piece by exploring the primacy of life in Judaism and our wider culture’s interest in prolonging life and forestalling death.
Then, he raises some questions:
Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.
Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”
Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.
I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”
He goes on:
Sixteen years ago, Terri Schiavo died.
I remember that when she was in the news, I heard the term “vegetative state” for the first time. It immediately struck me as a completely inappropriate term for any person since it explicitly dehumanizes someone by applying an incorrect analogy. Initially the adjective meant, “endowed with the power of growth” but it has come to denote exactly the opposite in public bioethics – that a person is incapable of any significant growth or development. We do not tolerate those who would dehumanize others by calling them cockroaches, so we ought not tolerate the dehumanizing language that refers to persons as “vegetables.”
When I think about Terri Schiavo, I think especially about the impact that her life and death had on my friend Taylor Hyatt. She wrote this great piece several years ago titled, “13 days that changed my life: Remembering Terri Schiavo.”
In the piece, Taylor reflects on how Terri’s story captivated her when she was in Grade 7.