Bobby Schindler

When the president of the United States, in his State of Union Address, needs to remind Congress that infanticide is immoral while half of those assembled sit on their hands, it suggests that the nation’s national politics is more hopelessly gridlocked on life issues than ever.

Meanwhile, states are pursuing their own paths. Consider three recent examples of extremism. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed the so-called “Reproductive Health Act,” which functionally permits abortion throughout the entirety of pregnancy. Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran proposed a bill that would have allowed abortion even as a woman was in labor and about to deliver her child.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s now-infamous statements to a Washington, D.C., radio station advocated a practice that appears indistinguishable from infanticide: “If a mother is in labor … the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and mother ….”

Since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion on demand, we have witnessed highly contentious battles between pro-life and pro-abortion advocates. Even while political gridlock appears to be worse than ever at the national level, there has been an encouraging and legitimate outcry at the state levels in response to New York and Virginia politicians. Lawmakers may be crossing a line in advancing their “abortion through labor” policies, as Americans realize that such practices so late in pregnancy certainly represent the intentional ending of a distinct human life.

If we are indeed reaching the high-water mark of pro-abortion extremism, it is worth considering the tactics used since Roe to desensitize Americans to the value of human life.

Author and bioethicist Wesley J. Smith observed nearly two decades ago that “practitioners of bioethics say who should live, and who should die.” Smith cautioned of an alarming and insidious trend within the modern bioethics’ movement known as “personhood theory,” which asserts that what matters “morally” is not that one is “human,” but that one has a legal status as a “person.”

What makes someone a legal person with human rights worth respecting? One must possess, those bioethicists argued, mental competencies such as “self-awareness” or having the ability to “engage in rational behavior.”

 

Consequently, those who do not fit this criterion would fall into the category of being defined as a human “non-person.” These “non-persons” would include embryos, the unborn child, infants (up to the first few years of life), those with Alzheimer’s disease, cognitively disabled individuals, and individuals with significant developmental disabilities.

Indeed, if one fit the definition of being a “human non-person” — which is a philosophical determination — then bioethicists would accordingly be able to shape the social, cultural, judicial, and medical criteria for any one person enjoying basic human rights — including the right to life itself.

Peter Singer is perhaps the most infamous of this bioethical cohort. In 1998, Singer was appointed to Princeton University’s Professorship of Bioethics and has since served as a prominent advocate for personhood theory. His advocacy of the notion of human “non-persons” has been attractive to many and he enjoys a sort of celebrity status among bioethicists and ethicists generally. Today, personhood theory is part of ethics taught in countless colleges, and it’s having a significant impact on those most vulnerable to its dehumanizing logic.

Not long ago, intentionally starving and dehydrating someone to death for any reason would have been thought of as barbaric and inhumane. Yet my sister Terri Schiavo became just one of the countless victims of Peter Singer’s logic. Terri lived with a brain injury and was cognitively disabled, but her husband and ultimately judicial decision makers concluded that her life lacked sufficient value to continue feeding her.

When asked by Wesley Smith in 2005 if he thought Terri was indeed a person, University of Florida bioethicist Bill Allen replied, “No, I do not. I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood.”

A 2014 article in The College Fix exposed “anecdotal evidence” that more college students support post-birth abortion, suggesting that children up to 5 years old could be put to death because they are not sufficiently “self-aware” and thus they do not constitute “persons.”

In 2018 a video surfaced of a University of Tennessee Knoxville student who rationalized support for the infanticide of a 2-year-old, since a child of that age is not sufficiently “sentient.” The student explained that “without communication, we have no way of knowing if you are sentient or not. It’s no different than this tree. It’s alive, but is it sentient? I don’t know. I cannot communicate with it.”

Can we really accept that we are, at any time, simply one accident away from being deemed by an overzealous bioethicist a “human nonperson” who unwillingly forfeits basic human rights?

David Ruiz recently confronted this very question, with all its deadly consequences. David was a young man who had experienced a brain injury and subsequently relied on care from his mother. Unfortunately, his mother had to fight for her son’s life after physicians applied a bioethicist-inspired designation of “brain death” to the young man, resulting in the denial of David’s basic right to food and water.

The Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, which operates a national crisis lifeline, advocates for David and persons like him. We successfully lobbied the Catholic hospital in Tucson, Arizona, where David’s food and water were withheld, to restore his basic care. This allowed David to die from the consequences of his brain injury rather than as a result of intentional starvation from lack of food and water, achieving a small victory for David and his family.

There are many like David who are increasingly at risk from the consequences of being labeled “human nonpersons.” We can do better than to accept such a deadly logic in our public life.

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Bobby Schindler is president of the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.