A column in the February 5th Wall Street Journal caught my attention. Cynthia Crossen explained the history of dog catchers—an unpleasant occupation that became necessary when unclaimed dogs roamed city streets. One man’s pet, apparently, was another man’s pest.
In 1877, Crossen reported, New York City passed a dog ordinance, built a dog pound, and hired dog catchers. After stray canines were rounded up, owners were given 48 hours to claim their pets. Unclaimed animals, up to 100 at a time, were placed in a large iron cage and lowered into the East River by a derrick. After several minutes, during which the poor animals struggled and clawed each other in a fruitless effort to survive, the cage was hoisted up and the dead dogs removed.
Can you imagine the outcry if that scenario were repeated today? Animal lovers, including myself, would be incensed. Yet history is filled with similar cruelties.
A few years ago I read Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, an oral history of the Holocaust. I shuddered as I read the testimony of a Jewish man who had to help open a mass grave—the Nazis intended to burn the bodies and eradicate traces of the death camp at Vilna.
“When we first opened the graves,” the survivor said, “we couldn’t help it, we all burst out sobbing. . . . The Germans even forbade us to use the words ‘corpse’ or ‘victim.’ The dead were blocks of wood . . . with absolutely no importance. . . . The Germans made us refer to the bodies as Figuren, that is, as puppets, as dolls, or as Schmattes, which means ‘rags.’”
Once again, language is used to disguise a terrible truth.
In March 1857, in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, the United States Supreme Court ruled that all blacks—slaves as well as free–were not and could never be citizens of the United States. As to the Constitution, which declares that all men are created equal, Justice Taney wrote that “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration . . . .”
The members of the court who ruled against the African-American Dred Scott—along with the dog catchers and the Nazis at Vilna–apparently bought into Hamlet’s argument that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Hamlet would have no problem justifying the disintegration of pets to pests, of prisoners to puppets, of people to property.
But Hamlet’s argument is false. Some acts violate moral decency and divine laws.
I have been following the case of Dr. Anna Pou of New Orleans, who is accused of killing elderly patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her supporters say she did her best to make her patients comfortable under horrendous conditions. The state of Louisiana alleges that she killed patients who were too ill too evacuate.
I have no opinion about Dr. Pou’s guilt or innocence, but I am glad that the state of Louisiana is willing to prosecute anyone who would murder elderly people who have become an inconvenience. An inconvenient patient, you see, is probably someone’s grandmother.
While I was researching my novel-in-progress, I stumbled across a website featuring stories from women who had aborted their babies. One woman, after discovering that her baby had severe hydrocephalus, wrote, “He was a perfect little soul in a damaged body. It was our job as his parents to send him up to heaven.”
I felt a chill as I read that comment. My heart breaks for mothers and fathers who discover that their children have a medical problem, but who are we to decide which problems are acceptable and which are not? How is thinking of a child as “damaged” and disposable different from labeling elderly people “inconvenient” or the 1857 Supreme Court decision that African Americans are “non-citizens” and undeserving of protection under the Constitution? The logic with which we condemn damaged, inconvenient, or problematic preborn babies would also condemn the elderly, the infirm, and the imprisoned.
Preborn babies are fully deserving of life and protection . . . especially those who are weak.
My friend, Judy Miller, recently emailed me about her daughter, Michelle. If Judy had had access to modern ultrasound scanning when she was pregnant, most doctors would have advised an abortion, for Michelle was microcephalic (small-brained) and would be profoundly retarded. But that special child taught Judy and her husband about love.
“The doctors said she wouldn’t live beyond the age of five,” writes Judy. “But though she could never talk, walk, or feed herself, her sweet smile and loving spirit shone with unbelievable radiance for thirty years. Early in her life, we had 100 volunteers coming to our home each week to help us pattern her. Some had never been around a child with mental retardation and she opened a door to shed light into their unenlightened world. Her funeral was attended by many of those same people.
“Was it difficult? You bet! Did we receive more than we gave by having her in our lives? You bet.”
Judy sums up her experience this way: “I’d do it all again. Having a child who is profoundly handicapped helps you experience a depth of love unlike any other. You love without the expectation of anything in return.”
Sometimes we reach the limit of what medical science can accomplish. But if we consistently choose life, we can console ourselves by knowing that we did all we could for the child we love.
So let’s take a closer look at the neutral and often pleasant phrases we use to cloak moral wrongs. We have steeped in denial for too long.