A Question of Worth

My mother was born in North Carolina, as were her parents and grandparents.  In fact, the family’s North Carolina roots are quite deep.  I have even seen a digital copy of one ancestor’s marriage license — from North Carolina — during the American Revolution.  It is an interesting document.  Apparently, the newly minted state was too cheap to throw away its old licenses, so they scribbled out the reference to his majesty, the King, and wrote the state governor’s name into the margin.  Perhaps, some frugal clerk wanted to see if the Revolution worked out for them before he went to the expense of ordering new documents from the printer.

As I said, our North Carolina roots are deep.  So, I read with interest and dismay the story that National Public Radio is featuring on its website by Julie Rose entitled, “A Brutal Chapter in N.C.’s Eugenics Past.”  Prior to World War II, a number of states had eugenics laws designed to keep the “unfit” from reproducing.  The unfit were usually persons with disabilities, or those too poor to afford the children that they produced.   Eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. after WWII because Americans discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s eugenics program.  North Carolina, however, kept its eugenics committees into the 1970s.  According to NPR, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people.  Mecklenburg County alone (the Charlotte area) sterilized an astounding 485.  While sterilization was supposed to be voluntary, the state cannot now be sure that some of these people weren’t coerced.

Of course, they can’t be sure.  Persons selected for sterilization came into the system from psychiatric hospitals, “schools for troubled youth,” and the welfare system, to name a few ways.  In other words, the eugenics program targeted vulnerable people, just as euthensia is an issue wrapped around vulnerable people, i.e. the terminally ill.  How can anyone be sure that people in extreme circumstances, especially when they have diminished capacity, are not being bullied or deceived into consenting to an irreversible act on their own bodies?

The truth is that society cannot have individual liberty without also upholding human dignity.  It is our dignity, our fundamental value as human beings, that gives us a claim to liberty.  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights bestowed upon us by our Creator.  They are inalienable because they are issued by divine decree and cannot be revoked by human authority. I’m not inviting you to stand and sing an anthem, but this is as good a time as any to consider how foundational this belief is to our way of life.  We may question whether Jefferson, a slave-owner, really believed that “all men” are created equal, or if he just meant to apply it to white men, and he surely did not mean to include women.  Our emerging national conscience, however, has insisted on applying it to everyone.  We fought a war over slavery, argued over women’s suffrage, and pushed on through the Civil Rights Movement, and every time we came back to the idea that The Declaration of Independence doesn’t free anyone unless it frees everyone.

The core of that conviction is that the worth of a person lies in the fact of his or her humanity.  We do not measure the value of a person by race or social class, as every civilization before ours has done.  We declare everyone equal on the basis of shared humanity.  That means that we must value life whether or not the individual is capable of giving society anything in return.  To decide that someone is dispensable because they are “a drain on the system” is to return to the days when societies considered the wealthy or the well-born to have greater intrinsic value than the poor.  Either way, you have measured human value in monetary units.

I realize that I appear to be addressing an issue (eugenics), which seems to have been tossed into the waste-basket of history, but the truth is that the underlying attitude never goes away.  Our society still wants to push abortions for babies that test positive for Down Syndrome (never mind that the test has a high rate of inaccuracy).  We still debate euthanasia, arguing for “quality of life” rather than quantity, as though each minute of life did not have intrinsic worth.  We complain loudly about welfare mothers, and while surely there is a better way of life than to eke it out on the dole, we forget that every child has enormous potential and a legitimate claim to good care, however dire the circumstances of his or her childhood.  I don’t have easy answers for the economic situation each of these issues create, but to dismiss life on the grounds that we can’t afford to maintain it seems to me a dangerous move away from our core convictions as a free society.

My mother was almost forty when I was born.  She was perfectly content with the two children she already had and certainly hadn’t planned on adding another.  My father was the church custodian and cleaned a doctor’s office on the side; mother was Nurse’s Aid.  They didn’t have health insurance.  According to the NPR article, they were exactly the sort of family that the eugenics board in North Carolina thought they were helping — families who didn’t need the burden of one more child.  Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t consider children to be “life accessories,” and they didn’t think that I cost more than I was worth.  I hear politicians preaching that our society should ensure that every child is planned and, therefore, wanted.  But planned and wanted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  Children are wanted when the parents recognize the intrinsic value of the child, and when they understand that no amount of freed-up income can compensate for losing one.  Children are wanted when society understands that it is worth the money to build more schools, give single mothers a hand-up, and provide safe and nurturing communities that allow even the disadvantaged child to thrive.

Otherwise, we may have left the eugenics model behind, but we will inevitably invite something equally despicable to take its place.

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