The value of a life

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Category :Thoughts


Trigger warnings: Rape, forced birth, suicide

“You know the reasons but still will never know my life, Kendrick a.k.a. ‘Compton’s Human Sacrifice'” – ​m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar

I don’t know if I’ve ever been pro-life, at least not after any period where I thought about it. I was raised in a fairly Catholic household, taken to mass every Sunday but I was never religious. I remember a priest telling us before our confirmation that if we had any concerns or doubts over our faith that we should tell our parents to let us sit out the sacrament. I think it was meant to be intimidating, but I remember the stand up row in my living room, my bolshie little 12-year-old self using it as an invitation to go straight home, standing with my jaw jutted as I tried to articulate my juvenile theology against my mother.

I think my anti-religiosity was originally born from a basic refusal to accept that there could be a God. But after reading things like the God Delusion or God Is Not Great as a teenager — and finding them such overly-literal thin gruel — I started to gravitate towards more structural critiques of the Catholic Church as an entity, rejecting #atheism. But I’m not even sure where I stand on that position now. I think religion and the religious are such a thorny issue that I’m not sure I have a position on it. Perhaps the institutional Church cannot be repurposed for progressive aims, but is the battle against religion even within the top 100 of battles to be fought? So often the battle for secularism tacitly accepts the relatively toothless modern Christianity and is weaponised against Muslims in a way that is more racist than progressive. France and Switzerland certainly seem that way.

But again, it is hard to look at the continued power of the Church in Ireland today and think it is anything other than a malign influence. What has been happening in this referendum — and in world events more generally — that I have been devoting a lot of time to think about, is the sort of absolutist pro-lifers. Those who think that ‘life’ in the abstract is some kind of absolute good. There are three main strands of this, as I can see it.

I saw Donal Walsh’s mother condemn the Repeal The Eighth side, saying that Donal fought for his ‘right to life’ and how she couldn’t in good conscience vote for the removal of the Eighth Amendment. And I just thought it was so typical of the whole Donal Walsh phenomenon. There is an undercurrent of this behind a majority of mainstream mental health discourse, that life is precious and those that commit suicide are selfish — or in the best case, those suffering from suicidal ideation would reexamine their thoughts if they were painted as selfish.

The problem is that Donal Walsh was a child and, while a brave child, was suffering from a fundamentally different issue than suicidal ideation. The idea that his cancer diagnosis gave him a platform to hector those with mental illness is quite frankly patronising. Experiences are subjective and suggesting that Donal had some kind of ‘deserving’ struggle and his decision to not think about suicide is therefore noble is such an absolutely crackpot view of the world that I literally cannot understand how it became as widespread as it did. Except for the fact that the majority of the country has no idea of the reality of mental illness. It’s the ‘keep calm and carry on’ set, with their ‘Please Talk’ twibbons, doing the Darkness Into Light run and then slagging off Sinead O’Connor.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” The Myth Of Sisyphus, Camus

I’ve spent time in hospital, I’ve been medicated, I’ve been to therapy, I’ve had to grapple with this question on levels of intellect, of emotion and of survival. But again, this entire philosophy — the Cat Poster ‘inspirational story’ wing — speaks to another part of the pro-life movement, which I will talk about now.

The idea that life is some kind of inherent good is absolutely underlined in the cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans. Both children had little to no chance of survival and yet we have public campaigns for there to be an intervention to force what amounted to medical experimentation on tiny terminally ill children. There is no concern about quality of life, or whether the reality of prolonging these childrens’ lives is a moral choice, merely the idea that more life equals good. This seems like such an unbelievably juvenile position as to, again, make it literally incomprehensible to me. I was struck watching The Supervet — as Noel Fitzpatrick talked about how we must, as custodians of animals, make the decision to minimise their pain — that there is the very really possibility that the owners of a dog on the show might consider for longer the morality of the decision to prolong a dying dog’s life than they would their own child. And to me that just seems such an absolutely bizarre set of circumstances. The absolutely rank opportunism of many on the Christian right, their decision to prey on the denial of grieving parents for political points, is sickening in the extreme.

The third and final strand of the thought that I’ve been trying to unpick is just the wider pro-life campaign in general. It’s become a hackneyed position to say on social media ‘where were the SaveThe8th side’ for literally any issue concerning born children, but perhaps it is hackneyed because there is a truth to it. To just ignore the reality of Fatal Foetal Abnormality to force the birth of a child with no chance of survival is the pinnacle of the sort of absolutism talked about earlier. But even beyond that I cannot comprehend the ideology that when there is a fully formed and autonomous human being, that they would be forced to give up their life for a notional person.

If you read about Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous cellist thought experiment, and look into the sections on ‘responses’, there are so often so many that say ‘this thought experiment only applies in situations of rape’. But I feel this is only because it presupposes the cellist as a fully-formed person. The cellist has a life, dreams and aspirations, an external autonomy that was ruptured for the purposes of the thought experiment. There is no such equality in the case of a foetus. The decision to have sex should in no way create a situation of ‘desert’ where the massive risks of pregnancy are acceptable. If you were attacked in the street and put into a situation where you had the same chance to die as you would in pregnancy, most people other than the most extreme pacifists would suggest you have the right to self-defence.

However, where this fixation on arraigning people into the position of incubator becomes truly grotesque is when it is combined with a complete disregard for the type of society that those forced births will emerge into.

I’ve sat out most of this referendum campaign, watching from the sidelines as the two sides started their campaigns. I’ve been in Bucharest, Romania. I’d been working six or seven days a week for three-and-a-half years, and I felt I needed a break. Eastern Europe seemed as good a place as any to rest up and try to think about what I wanted to do next with my life.

But, as often can happen with the human brain’s delight in finding patterns, there are unmistakeable parallels between Romania and the vote that is soon to happen in Ireland.

It’s hard to reconcile what happened under Ceausescu with my positions as a leftist. I can tell myself that Ceausescu’s valorisation of far-right figures in his later years, his dependence on IMF funding, his own personal misbehaviour and that of his family’s, all mark him out as an outlier. A closet fascist even. But the reality is that he operated within the Eastern Bloc and presided over disaster.

One of the most stark and unforgivable of that is Decree 770. It is the idea of birth being a good in-and-of-itself distilled down to its most functional. Women’s liberties extended across communist nations following the progressive wave in the wake of the 1917 revolution were rolled back, abortion was banned, contraception was prohibited and weighty jail sentences were imposed on women and doctors. Backstreet abortions were prevalent, but if someone was pregnant and no baby resulted they could often be criminalised. Malnutrition saw a surge in birth defects as women were having babies when they didn’t have the resources for the mouths they already had to feed — and orphanages the size of warehouses swelled to overcapacity as parents gave up their children when they could not care for them. Ceausescu saw birth, and population, as a tactical benefit, to swell Romania into a position of power. Maybe it is too teleological to see no difference between that and the view that sees birth as a moral absolute.

In both situations we have people who wish for births, regardless of the ability of society — or even the individual pregnant person — to deal with the child that is the result of that birth. It is the culmination of all of this, the belief that life itself has a power or value abstract from the quality of that life.

And I don’t know how to compartmentalise my views on religion or even the legacy of Ceausescu’s communism, but I do know that we should be focused on creating a world where everyone is given their best life. And not a world where we pretend there is dignity or power in the mere existence or extension of life.