Thursday, January 17, 2008

when people become prey

I'm on new tablets. They make me feel sleepy. I don't like feeling sleepy, because I get low and grouchy, but Maxima, Minora and Minima have come to learn that when they see me like this they are seeing the unintended effects of a pharmaceutical intervention, not the man they love. They give me space and time - I'm very lucky.

I find it unsettling that there's a "voluntary" euthanasia group called Dignitas whose members are so uncomfortable with depression that they would like to give people who are depressed, for whatever reason, a helping hand off this mortal coil.

"Good riddance to the killjoys," some would say. And while it is allegedly a free society imbued with liberal values descended from the Enlightenment, traditionally only the received wisdom within this liberal society has been given an airing, in the hope that not thinking about the alternatives will make the alternatives go away. As Henry Kissenger says in Diplomacy, they confuse intent and result.

My Mum, God rest her, always told me to start at the beginning, so I will. I know of no more radical a starting point, when discussing people, than conception. This is not to make any religious or political points, just to observe, as Aristotle did, that the best place to start is with first principles. Clever man, Aristotle, he agreed with my Mum.

The received wisdom is that any birth that is not planned marks out the baby as an unwanted child, therefore abortion results in society being rid of unwanted children. The intent, however, is revealed by this eugenics website - that unwanted children (unwanted by whom? the parents or society?) are the result of "dysgenic" reproduction and are marked by low "intelligence and educational level"; indeed, there exists an "unhealthy negative relationship between intelligence and fertility" (think about that, but not for too long).

To give an example of the difference between received wisdom and the thinking behind it, John Smeaton of SPUC states that one senior member of the pro-abortion organisation The Brook Advisory Service, also known as Brook, seems happy to promote contraception even though he admits (against what the received wisdom states to be the rationale of contraception) that it causes abortions to rise. He has a doctorate in embryology and has also been associated with the Population Services Family Planning Programme (which was later given permission to use the name Marie Stopes by the Eugenics Society) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, as well as having been a company director of two abortion clinics. His name is Professor David Malcolm Potts, and he was made a Fellow of the British Eugenics Society (now known as the Galton Institute) in 1963.

I once attended a debate on abortion in Edinburgh in 1991 at which a fairly neutral speaker announced, to boos from liberal students, that the cause of killing people after birth for reasons that were therapautic to society but not to them, had been given a "head of steam" by the abortion movement. But fast-forward to 2006, and there were no cat-calls when the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (with which Prof Potts studied for a Diploma) made public a proposal for the "active euthanasia" of babies on the grounds that "a very disabled child can mean a disabled family". Professor John Harris, a member of the government's Human Genetics Commission, evidently feels no need to continue splitting intent from result: "We can terminate for serious foetal abnormality up to term but cannot kill a newborn. What do people think has happened in the passage down the birth canal to make it okay to kill the foetus at one end of the birth canal but not at the other?"

Professor Harris seems to have forgotten a paper he wrote the year before, in which he stated, "the same ethic that requires us to save lives must logically require us to extend lives if we can." However, given that he is writing about enhancement - technically, transhumanism - it is possible that he is coming at the "disabled baby" argument from at least one of two perspectives:

a)This baby differs from the average person in one aspect or more, and I have difficulty in calling it human.

b)This child will grow up to function more slowly, painfully etc than other people, it will require more money to remain healthy than the average person, and therefore is not consistent with our aims for society to consider it human.

Prof Harris cites UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee which famously referred to the human genome as the "common heritage of humanity" and uses this as a basis to advocate in respect of genetic enhancement that "in the absence of reliable predictive knowledge as to how dangerous leaving things alone may prove, we have no rational basis for a precautionary approach that prioritises the status quo." This bears less relation to the IBC's optomistic caveat that "the applications of genetic research regulated in order to guard against any eugenic practice that runs counter to human dignity and human rights," and more to the statement at the top of the Galton Institute's Aims and Activities page, made by Sir Francis Galton in 1908: "Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings: he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective."

I wonder what sort of kindly feelings, pity and merciful processes Leslie Burke, who has cerebellar ataxia, felt were being bestowed upon him when the British Medical Association took him to court because it objected to his wish to stop doctors from withdrawing food and fluids essential to keep him alive once he loses the ability to talk. He lost.

All is not doom and gloom, however: although the BMA has stated that doctors are "obliged to act on advance directives", some doctors have stated that they are prepared to risk prison than give in to laws that would constitute "backdoor euthanasia" and leave them looking in a thesaurus to find alternative terms to describe one person who is the vehicle of destruction of another person to their children.

But I am worried about the transhumanist notion of "enhancement". Once enhancement becomes the norm, will it then follow that the non-enhanced are abnormal or sub-normal? Then, following the logic of statement (b) above, which is the policymaker's articulation of statement (a), those who are not enhanced, or have not been chosen to become enhanced, are handicapped, disabled, something less: not human. But the enhanced, I'm sure, will not be content to minister to their peers. Will Superman be content to unblock the drains after a prodigious hyperturkey dinner-party? Will Wonder Woman clean up the vomit after Jimmy Neutron's 16th birthday party? When the avant-garde becomes normal, the normal will become a class of dalit writ large. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to envisage a future that resembles the scenario behind Gattaca, or worse.

Prof John Harris possibly says more about his attitudes than he intends when he labels critics of enhancements "superstitious, fallacious or, more usually, both", and, having got that off his chest, goes on to explain the ethics of the übermann: "enhancements per se are not ethically problematic: they are unequivocally good, clearly ethical". He does not say who will be the owner of this ethical 20/20 vision, or which code of ethics he is referring to.

What is clear is that the obsession with euthanising people of any age with a real or perceived disability is a reflection of a fear of frailty on the part of much of the scientific establishment and the politicians who are enchanted by their smoke and mirrors. The desire to perfect the human form with technology reflects at best a protracted angor animi such as is only usually felt when one feels one is dying, and at worst a semi-psychotic wish to automatise oneself and escape the fear, stress, pain and dignity of living.

What this boils down to is that if, like me, you are disabled; or if you have disabled people in your family, no matter the degree of disability or separation, the modern eugenicists are looking at you and, no doubt, thinking of the motto of the early 20th century which dare not be spoken now in so many words, but which stands behind so many of the abuses of modern human beings:


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