There has been a lot of outrage recently over the videos exposing Planned Parenthoods’ selling of fetal body parts. As someone who believes in the human rights of the fetus, I do find these videos outrageous. But I’m not really surprised by them. As long as fetuses are considered mere clumps of tissue, why not buy and sell said clumps of tissue for the betterment of the rest of society? If it weren’t gag-inducing (as are plenty of other medical procedures) and illegal why not sanction such an enterprise, regulate it, and celebrate it? After all, the issue of abortion isn’t really about what happens to the “products of conception” or who profits from them.
The issue of abortion is about the meaning of life and of suffering.
In the end, those who support abortion and other life/death issues like euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide do so because they believe that suffering is the ultimate evil. Many will even argue that suffering can make a life not worth living. Thus, their ultimate humanitarian goal is to eliminate suffering.
Of course, this goal is complicated by the fact that one human being’s suffering is so often intertwined with another human being’s suffering. There inevitably must be some picking and choosing. Utilitarianism provides the framework for such selection: If we must let someone suffer, let it be the one least likely to survive. This is how one can conclude that between a fourteen year old rape victim and a minuscule embryo, the choice is quite easy. The embryo must be the one to suffer (if it even suffers at all) so that the girl doesn’t have to. Things get more complicated the closer the two parties are in likelihood of survival and degree of suffering, but there is always a choice, and often the choice is a clear one.
But what if suffering isn’t the ultimate evil? What if the ultimate evil is the denial of life’s inherent worth? What if the ultimate evil is not suffering, but actually the failure to embrace life despite that suffering?
This question reminds me of the book (and now movie) The Giver. It is the story of a society that has decided to eliminate suffering by eliminating all the things which are associated with causing suffering: differences, risks, adventure, deep emotions and relationships, sexuality, spirituality, knowledge, and even people. When a person gets too sick or too old or too difficult to deal with, they are euthanized. And as a result, there is very little pain or struggle and everyone feels fairly content and safe.
But Jonas, the young protagonist, begins to discover that along with the elimination of suffering his society has also eliminated love. They have eliminated the deep joy and satisfaction that comes along with the willingness to live life and live it fully, to love others and love them fully, regardless of the suffering that may come. What results is widespread meaninglessness — a meaninglessness that may not initially sting in the same way that normal human suffering does, but a meaninglessness that slowly chips away at the soul.
I remember the first time I read The Giver; I was actually a bit torn. On the one hand, I agreed that something profound had been lost in the stark society— but I was also sort of attracted to it. It sounded nice to feel so safe and for life to be so easy. It sounded nice to never have to hurt.
And I don’t deny that it sounds nice in our real world too. I assume that the women in the videos casually talking about baby parts are not doing so because they are vicious human beings but because they are human beings who once saw somebody suffer (or experienced it themselves) and decided that such a thing was too atrocious to permit. Perhaps they watched a good friend go through a lonely teen pregnancy and a subsequent lonely single motherhood. Perhaps they watched a family welcome a baby who was destined to die a painful death shortly after birth. Whatever it was, I’m sure it started out with good intentions. But the problem is that when you start down the slippery slope of denying human dignity of a few, you inevitably end up denying the human dignity of a few more. You inevitably end up at the concentration camps. It might not look like Aushwitz. It might look more like the colorless, picket-fence Giver society. But it is all the same, nonetheless, because there is no love. And the only thing worse than a humanity that suffers is a humanity that does not love.