Life unworthy of living

Sometimes we need to remember the past. Of course that is what historians try to teach us. The recent translation into Italian of the 1920 German book Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche prompted a reminder by Italian historian Lucetta Scaraffia about how the central idea of the book played out over the next few decades in Germany (see Washington Post article).

She suggests that the history of that idea is relevant to current bioethical issues. Some of those have been discussed recently on this blog. A few days ago Joe Gibes wrote about decisions to abort fetuses found to have major abnormalities such as Down syndrome. Back in December Jon Holmlund wrote about the use of PGD to diagnose embryos with major genetic disorders so that parents at risk for having a child with such a disorder could choose to give birth to a child without the disorder and not bring embryos with the disorder to birth.

Both the practice of aborting fetuses with a major disorder and doing PGD to choose which embryos should be brought to birth to avoid giving birth to a child with a genetic disorder involve the concept of a life unworthy of living that Binding and Hoche wrote about. If we make a decision to abort a fetus with Down syndrome or even one with a more serious disorder we are making a decision that the life of the person who that fetus will be is not worth living. If we choose to create multiple embryos and choose to implant those who do not have a serious genetic disorder so that they can live, but choose not to implant those who have the disorder so that they will not live we are saying that the lives that would be lived by those embryos who are discarded are not worth living. Whether one believes that and embryo or a fetus has full moral status or not they are unique individuals who have live that they would live if they are allowed to. Not allowing them to live those lives due to the presence of a disorder is saying that those lives are not worth living.

Remembering what happened in Germany helps us remember what a serious thing it is to say that a person’s life is not worth living. The idea that Binding and Hoche wrote about began as a philosophical concept, but it was embraced by the German government under Hitler as a reason for German physicians to put to death mentally deficient children whose lives were thought to be not worth living. Later that was expanded to large numbers of Jews and others whose lives were not thought to be worth living. The experience in Germany helps us to see that the idea that there are people whose lives are not worth living depends on a negation of the fundamental idea that every human life has inherent value. As Christians we understand that this value is due to our being created in the image of God. Even for those who do not have that understanding the inherent value of every human being underlies the concept of universal human rights that has become the foundation for global justice.

The German experience reminds us that there are some lines that we must not cross. One of those is saying that another human being has a life that is not worth living and using that as the justification for ending the life of an embryo or fetus.

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