Something Not Like Us

by David Morstad

In his statement regarding Carrie Buck’s case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes took into consideration Carrie, her mother, and her daughter, all of whom were assumed to have disabilities, and stated simply, “Three generations of imbeciles (an accepted medical term of the era) is enough.”  The Commonwealth of Virginia’s law was upheld by the Court and Carrie Buck was sterilized without her consent on October 19, 1927 by means of a tubal ligation.  Other states enacted similar laws and, while no such laws exist today, it would be 1981 before compulsory sterilization would end in the US.  But we should in no way believe that humanity has come to its collective senses on the issue of disability, self-determination, and basic human value.

In 2012, a pair of Italian ethicists, Alberta Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled, After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? They propose that a decision whether or not to allow a child to live cannot always be made with the limited amount of information a developing fetus can provide.  Consequently, according to the authors, it should be permissible to give birth to the child and then, if desired, make the decision to terminate the life.  The full paper is available here, but the ethical position, as summarized in the paper’s abstract, is clear:

“… (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people…”

“Actual people.”  That is the language they used.  As privileged people, able-bodied and able-minded, regardless of how profound the historic lessons have been, we always seem ready to believe that people with disabilities are not quite like us, and deserve a different level of consideration.

hand sketch2More than ten years ago, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Massachusetts, first came under fire for its use of electrical shocks to elicit behavior change in students with disabilities who lived there.  They are the only school in the country using such techniques.  While they claim to only use the method to control the most severe behaviors, video evidence and court testimony seen here (BE WARNED: The video is extremely disturbing to watch) indicate students have been shocked and restrained for things as minor as refusing to take off a coat.  Neither the criticism of international human rights organizations, nor changes in Massachusetts law have completely eliminated the practice.  One wonders if the same screams were heard from non-disabled students in a public school classroom, if teachers and administrators would be able to avoid prison.

In the shadow of the ADA and the more recent United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, these positions and practices are as puzzling as they are outrageous.  As human beings, let alone called as people of faith to serve one another, we are accountable.  We cannot both know the truth and choose to be ignorant.  As author and human rights activist, Arundhati Roy, has so eloquently said, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

For the sake of all who are created in the image of God, imago Dei, b’tzelem Elohim, we are accountable.

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