Periods of disruption and turmoil have a tendency to expose our true selves. The insights thus gleaned are not always comforting. For instance, a man may feel convicted that he is especially courageous, but placed suddenly in a situation of danger, he may find—to his surprise—that he has turned tail and run.
We have entered a period of disruption. A pandemic is sweeping the globe. Already tens of thousands have died, and it seems likely that tens of thousands more will die before this is over. Whereas just a month ago it seemed that the world was safely under control, now everything is in flux. A month ago, we were comfortably making plans for the following month, or year, or even the next five years; now we are wondering what the next day will hold. For many, the fact that modern medical science has not—as we naively thought—permanently banished the spectre of large outbreaks of communicable disease has come as a shock to the system. We are being tried in the crucible of disruption.
Even at the best of times, bad news sells. Now that there really is bad news happening, and on a global scale, the media seems only too eager to ensure that no terrifying prediction or development goes unnoticed. Unfortunately, with so many millions temporarily unemployed, many people have nothing else to do but to watch the disaster unfold in real time on their television sets and smart phones. The result is widespread fear. Some people, as might be expected, are not responding well. And so, in addition to immersing us in the distressing facts about the virus itself, the media is also ensuring that we learn about the various ways that people are cracking. Hence, we see stories about how some people are ostracizing or abusing the nurses who are working to save lives, because they are fearful of catching the virus from them. We see stories about how some people are cynically profiting from the pandemic by price-gouging on basic necessities, how neighbors are “shaming” other neighbors for not strictly following isolation protocols, and so on.
Rediscovering Human Dignity
But crucibles do not only expose weaknesses; they also refine, strengthen, and reveal the strength that is already there. And the fact is, there is a great deal about this outbreak of coronavirus that is incredibly encouraging, if we just look. As it turns out, many people who are being placed into the crucible of the coronavirus pandemic are proving themselves made of the purest, sturdiest stuff. To be fair, some of the media do tell these stories as well: stories of how whole neighborhoods, towns, and countries are coming together to find solutions to provide for the needs of the elderly and others who are vulnerable; of how neighborhoods of people sing together to keep their spirits up; of how priests are devising novel ways to deliver the sacraments to the faithful; of the everyday heroism of store clerks, delivery workers, and others who keep our nation running; and stories of the truly extraordinary heroism of the countless doctors, nurses, priests, and others who are literally putting their lives at risk to treat and minister to the sick.
Above all, we are learning how much we value human life and how great the sacrifices are that we are willing to make to save lives. This was the point of a recent article on The Catholic Thing. In the midst of the pandemic, writes Hadley Arkes, “The dominant, reigning premise, sweeping across all countries and ‘cultures’—and all parts of the media—is that our mission is to protect human life, all human lives. And to accomplish that end we are willing to upend almost everything that has become normal, and even necessary, in our lives.”
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, is not pro-life, to put it mildly. Last year he gladly signed a bill into law that allows abortion up to birth, among other horrific things. He even ordered the Empire State Building to be lit pink to celebrate the passage of the bill. It was grotesque. And yet, here he is in an interview this past week lambasting the social Darwinism—yes, he specifically called it that—that would consciously sacrifice some people deemed “less fit” or “less valuable,” especially the elderly, for crass utilitarian reasons.
Some people, said Gov. Cuomo, seem to be advocating an attitude of, “Well, we’ll just sacrifice old people. They’re old people anyway. And the old get left behind.” To this, Cuomo shot back, “What is this? Some modern Darwinian theory of natural selection? You can’t keep up so the band is going to leave you behind? We’re going to move on and if you can’t keep up, you just fall by the wayside of life? God forbid.” He added: “My mother is not expendable, and your mother is not expendable and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable.”
Quite right. And also, as pro-lifers were quick to point out, breathtakingly hypocritical.
And yet, as Arkes states in his piece on The Catholic Thing, we shouldn’t dismiss such remarks merely because they are hypocritical. Hypocritical they most certainly are. But they are also true. Indeed, suggests Arkes, we should take a certain amount of comfort in the fact that certain moral truths are so deeply embedded in our cultural makeup that most of us take them completely for granted: above all, the truth that every human being is of infinite worth and dignity. “In this adamant conviction about the saving of human lives, there has not been a flicker of doubt even among the talking heads of the liberal media,” notes Arkes. “They don’t seem to doubt that the overriding purpose is to save lives, of the young and healthy, as well of people who are older and at the edge of their lives.”
My point in writing this is not to enter into the debate about how best to respond to coronavirus or how to weigh the various goods (including the good of a healthy economy) in the balance. It is merely to point out that there is something encouraging in the fact that so many people have proved willing to so drastically alter their lives and to make other significant sacrifices, even though they themselves are at risk from the virus. At the heart of this willingness is an acknowledgment that every person is precious; that people are more important than things; and that the measure of every person, institution, and society is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. And at the heart of this willingness is the fundamental biblical truth that human beings are in some way extraordinary and that we are, as Genesis teaches us, “made in the image and likeness of God.”
A Deadly Inconsistency
There is a famous story told about anthropologist Margaret Mead. Years ago, a student asked her what she considered the first sign of civilization in culture. One might have expected her to respond by pointing to archeological evidence showing the development of representational art, sophisticated tool-making, or evidence of religious practices. Instead, she mentioned an ancient human femur bone found at an archeological dig. And what was so remarkable about this bone? The fact that it clearly had been broken . . . and healed. As Mead pointed out, in the animal kingdom, a broken femur bone is a death sentence. With such an injury, an animal cannot move and will inevitably be abandoned by his fellows and fall victim to predators or starvation. The only way this ancient person could have survived long enough for the bone to heal is if his fellow human beings selflessly looked out for his interests, protecting and sheltering him and providing him with food and drink.
Human beings are not like other animals. We acknowledge in a way, as no other animal does, the intrinsic and infinite dignity and worth of our fellow human beings.
But not always. For instance, consider the headline of this editorial from the editorial board of the New York Times this past week: “Make Abortion More Available During the Pandemic—Not Less.” I won’t bore you with the asinine “reasoning” of the editorial’s writers who dismiss the claim that abortion is a “nonessential” service as “obvious nonsense.” No. The “obvious nonsense” is that a medical procedure that kills another human being and cures no disease could ever be considered “essential”! Unfortunately, this is the great paradox at the heart of our post-Christian culture. On one hand, our culture is suffused with Christian values. The golden rule is taken by most people as beyond obvious, even though it was far from obvious in many non-Christian pagan cultures, which systematically, brutally, and consciously dehumanized and treated as dispensable those who did not meet certain arbitrary criteria.
Regrettably, we are still afflicted by this same blindness, even though we ought to know better! And so, at the very same time as the New York Times is advocating the necessity of making extraordinary sacrifices to save the lives of those most vulnerable to coronavirus, the very same paper is baying for the deaths of a whole class of even more vulnerable humans—preborn babies.
The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Our job as pro-life people is to draw people’s attention to how the truth of the worth and dignity of human life—which most people say they believe in—is being flagrantly violated in our society every day. Gov. Cuomo is quite right: no human being is expendable, no matter how weak or defenseless. However, the social Darwinism that sacrifices the preborn merely because they are unseen and are not yet “producing” anything of value poses a far greater threat to life than this virus that has brought our society to a complete standstill.
Imagine if we, as a society, were a quarter as motivated to save the lives of the preborn as we are to save victims of coronavirus. Never again would we throw up our hands and simply declare that a woman “had” to abort her baby because she was poor and could not afford to take care of her child. Just as governments have risked everything to support the temporarily unemployed to make it possible to contain this coronavirus, we would do anything in our power to identify pregnant women in need and ensure they had the support they need to keep their babies. And just as many states have rapidly made it illegal to knowingly expose someone to this virus, so would we do everything in our power to make it illegal to march into a “clinic” and have one’s baby killed.
As these past weeks have proved, we are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the lives of the vulnerable. If we could be consistent in that willingness, how many millions and millions of human lives we could save, starting today!