Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Distressing Math of Human Worth

A week ago, a 14 year old girl smothered her newborn infant son shortly after giving birth to him. The Polk County Sheriff's Office apprehended her and charged her with first degree murder and child abuse. Those are the facts.

There are two societal takeaways from this.

The first thought that immediately popped into my head was abortion. Had the girl simply had an abortion, this monstrous crime would have been averted and we never would have heard about it. At the same time, it's hard not to think that abortion and the event that transpired have essentially the same outcome: a nascent human life exterminated.

They also have the same motive as well. A potential mother decides, for one reason or other, that she can't have the child. She then remedies the problem by eliminating it. As far as the victim (for lack of a better term) goes, I have no clue whether embryos inside the womb can feel pain, but it's likely that the baby did, however brief it was.

This is why I struggle with abortion. The problem is compounded because I'm male, and therefore I haven't the slightest idea of what being pregnant is like and I don't truly know what women go through (emotionally, physically) when they're pregnant. But I do know that potential life gets snuffed out. And that's something that the pro-lifers have completely correct.

And it's something that should cause cognitive dissonance for many people who are pro-choice. I suspect that they also have softer views on other human rights issues. But this is the ultimate human rights issue, whether somebody has the right to terminate human life simply because they don't want to deal with it.

I am still pro-choice. But increasingly, I find the belief hard to hold. In our current society, where so many people agree that human life has intrinsic worth, many people who are pro-choice have no problem with the idea universal financial safety nets and health care, I can't see how they reconcile those views with their views on abortion.

From a societal standpoint, I propose the following: abortions are not allowed, but the mother has the right to decide whether she wants to claim the baby. If she chooses not to, after she gives birth, the mother forfeits her legal rights to the child and the child becomes a ward of the state, who is guaranteed room and board and a standard education until they are 18. After which they become adults and are therefore on their own.

If the mother becomes pregnant again and decides she doesn't want to keep the baby, she can still turn him/her over to the state, after which she must consent to voluntary sterilization. To help defray the cost to society, the mother has to pay a "birth excise" (not financially ruinous, but not insubstantial either) in full or in installments (with interest).

This is the most humane way to deal with the issue, in my opinion. The pro-life movement is correct that life is precious and it should not be ended simply because the mother decides it's in her best interest to do so. The pro-choice movement is correct that motherhood is a huge emotional and financial investment, and that the mother should not have to bear the burden of being a parent if they don't want to. The burden will be borne by society.

The second issue is that of human worth. As I said previously in this writing, this would have been a non-issue had the girl simply gotten an abortion. The fact that she immediately murdered her baby after he had been born is horrendous and despicable. But it still raises the specter of human worth. Consciously or not, we assign more value to human life based on who that life is. Factors include age, appearance, socioeconomic background, proximity, personal history, etc.

For example, take the unenviable task of choosing who gets a life saving organ transplant. Every year, tens of thousands of people die waiting to receive a life saving organ transplant. The decision on who gets what is determined by a hospital board. It's not hard to surmise the factors that go into their decision. Age, socioeconomic background, criminal history, family, and probability of success are the most important.

But that's not the only area where people determine the relative value of human life. We do it in our laws for human casualty and even quality of life measurements (government bureaucrats, for example, will calculate the value of clean air versus the cost of a polluting factory and decide whether it should lower emissions or should down completely). In the real world, there is no such thing as "every life is priceless". We have to put a price tag on life to function as a society.

Many people rail on and on about the perils of moral relativism, but we do it all the time. It's a fact that's implicit in our traffic, criminal, casualty, and tort laws. As a country, we need to admit that this stuff exists, because we can't have a productive conversation about effective public policy until that happens.

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