Monday, February 1, 2010

The Dignified Corpse

Since my daughter has been doing so much better, I have had the time to pursue my more "political/academic" interests with a very particular end in mind. I've read as much online about Singer (primarily because he represents one viewpoint) as I can find...and there is quite a bit of his own material out there so that I can quote him directly and not suffer the oft repeated criticism that Singer's writings are "misunderstood" and "taken out of context".

The following represents some thoughts of mine...and once again, there's nothing genius about it...I am quite simply struck by some of the things I have come across of late.

What I have been trying to come to terms with recently is the issue of cognition..or more precisely, to use Singer's terminology, "self-awareness"...and the value of life...specifically, why is it that the minute someone's brain function is compromised, it's open season on that person's life? What is it about our society that we value thinking so highly that we assume then that it is OK to deny someone his or her human rights because he/she "doesn't really understand" what is going on around them? Why is it that a man or a woman in a wheelchair is treated like crap on the street until someone discovers s/he has a PhD? People fawn over Stephen Hawking...would they do so if he weren't a genius? Among certain "neurodiversity" advocates, there is a great deal of time spent on "proving" all geniuses of the distant past were actually autistic. Why does that matter?

I'll admit to having fallen for this line of thinking myself. One of my biggest objections to the Ashley Treatment, up until now, was that there was no way that they could really tell what her cognitive ability actually was or could become. CT scans are not reliable indicators of thinking ability, as my own daughter's scans very clearly demonstrate. How horrible would it be for her to experience all of these surgeries and assaults on her bodily integrity if she is fully cognizant of what is happening to her?

Again...why should that matter?

Like it or not, Singer merely puts this pre-existing societal prejudice into clear and extreme focus:

In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings...No infant - disabled or not - has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time. (bold italics mine)

It's shocking to read...particularly since most people think Singer's views on infanticide were specific to those with disabilities. Wrongo. Your "normal" healthy baby is up for grabs too, with this line of thinking. As I mentioned above, however, there is a strong tendency to value humans...and animals for that matter...based on their brain power and everything that entails.

Some might argue that this is a culturally influenced bias, but since it crosses cultural barriers, I think (and I am purely speculating) that it might have to do with some very basic (and long ago unnecessary) instinct for survival. The smartest...not necessarily the strongest...will survive and make a choice mate for reproduction and continuance of the species.

Reams of paper has been spent attempting to define personhood and it's relationship to cognition and "self-awareness", not only in academic circles but in legal ones. Arguably, discussion in the legal arena has a much more powerful influence on everyday life, because this is where people turn to assist them in making decisions regarding the appropriate treatment of human beings that they then can carry out without fear of reprisal. In any case, it is here that I found an interesting little anomaly.

When dealing specifically with cognitively challenged individuals, there is always a reference to the concept of "dignity". As a matter of fact, in the Ashley case, it was specifically pointed out by one doctor that she possessed no such thing:

George Dvorsky, a member of the Board of Directors for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies: "If the concern has something to do with the girl's dignity being violated, then I have to protest by arguing that the girl lacks the cognitive capacity to experience any sense of indignity."

I have read similar perspectives in legal documents in dealing with people with severe disabilities and those in comas. The end result is the same: you can do things to cognitively challenged people that you cannot do to "normal" people because they won't really know what is going on in the first place.

Interestingly enough, in both Canada and the U.S. there are laws pertaining to the treatment of a corpse and there is such a thing as being charged with an offense when committing "an indignity to a corpse" or "abuse of corpse". Indignities include, but are not limited to, having sex with a corpse, mutilating a corpse, not burying a corpse.

Isn't it interesting that it is possible for one to perform an indignity to a corpse but not to a cognitively challenged child (or adult)? At what point does the dead body acquire more dignity than a live person? Hmmm.

Finally, is the rape of a comatose, catatonic or severely cognitively challenged individual (and don't be so naive as to think these things have not occurred), less abominable because the victims don't know what happened? Said rapist can still be charged with rape and suffer imprisonment. They aren't let off on the basis that the one raped was unaware of it. Ashley's parents argued that removal of her breasts were to avoid her being sexualized..but what difference would it make if she is so completely lacking any sense of dignity?

The point (of this long, rambly post) is, dignity isn't any more of something that the disabled person has to prove himself aware of or worthy of than the quality of life issues I discussed in a previous post. We either endow humans with dignity or we don't...we either choose to value humans or we don't. We can't start making all sorts of ridiculous distinctions based on cognitive ability.

Otherwise, we would all be better off as corpses.

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