I have to wonder sometimes at the audacity with which we are judged by others. Of course it happens to us each day and we are even guilty of it ourselves but nowhere can it be more alarming then when we feel our children’s very lives judged because they are severely disabled. As a parent providing round the clock care for my son for over fifteen years there are many constants in what has become our tiny, nearly hermetic life. Unfortunately judgment is one of them.
Often I have heard the question phrased, ‘what is the point?’ when discussing the care of my son. ‘Isn’t he suffering?’ is also asked, sometimes in tandem as though to drive home the point that I really have no reason to be taking care of him all these years. “You have no life”, is supposed to be the nail in the coffin, I suppose. Because it seems incomprehensible to others, (perhaps they are well intentioned in their concern for me) that a life of providing extreme care for your child could be even more worthy than it is difficult. That in this life experience there is place for personal growth and the opportunity to find an indefinable connectedness within the deepest levels of humility and indeed, to define our humanity.
Each day my son has countless seizures and suffers respiratory distress. Multiple sessions of respiratory therapy are needed and he must be fed, toileted, massaged, repositioned and given multiple medications throughout the day. Surgeries have left him scarred and debilitated as his paralyzed body slowly collapses in on itself.
Not strangely, the difficulties encountered as such have changed my outlook but sees me grieve for my encounters with ignorance concerning those difficulties when people feel the need to project negativity on our lives in an entirely thoughtless manner. From physicians who have mustered, “you should think about having another child, don’t bother with this one” to bioethicists who maintain that a sick child, if also disabled, simply does not possess enough merit to live. The consequences of the lives of such children is parlayed into a sense of having no ‘cause’.
For years I would try to convince people, gently pointing out the ‘good’ moments as counter argument. His obvious will to live; the need to care for someone who has no ability to do so themselves. I would never invoke the ‘sanctity of life’ dictum, so frowned upon by many academics. I would not mitigate my indignation with such statements since after all, we are mature adults simply discussing matters dispassionately, aren’t we? Emotion being the harbinger of mistakes; it creates an air of fallacy, so we must remain cordial and exact and correct, yes?
In The Netherlands they have already found solutions to this matter – without any public referendum, where the bioethics of utilitarianism holds sway and the term, “unbearable suffering” has become the commonplace catch-all phrase to justify encouraging parents to authorize “assisted dying” of their newborn, disabled children.
But I understood over the years of discussions and defending my worldview that their position is based on more than one omission. One, being that we are human beings still caught in a process of development and indeed, in need of development. As evolved and evolving beings we can look to progress in regards some of our most lofty characteristics, such as caring for one another and the acceptance and the acknowledgment of true equality, as integral to such introspection. It seems that the ethics behind arguing ‘worth’ of a disabled and ill child has them categorize equality simply as “sameness”.
I no longer make attempts to defend my position to the ‘uninitiated’ though and my response is simple: “Try it.” Raise such an extremely physically and mentally compromised child and then, and only then, tell me what understanding you have reached. You cannot simply make statements with such deep ramifications if you lack even basic knowledge of the subject matter.
Lacking such opportunity or inclination, do the next best thing in order to have an informed opinion; speak to parents who are raising and have raised such children. Yes, speak even to the parents who have lost their child. Speak especially to them. Ask them about their experience and I dare say you will not find someone who weighs in solely with regret. Ask them if it was worth it. Though many will be hard pressed to find exacting words with which to phrase such, ask them if it has contributed something not merely tangible, but essential to their lives.
I doubt many parents, when their child is given a strange look at the park, or see someone walk by with forced stare locked firmly to the ground, embark on a discourse of bioethics with the perpetrators of “the look”. But an inner conversation will most certainly take place, each time. Mostly those individuals who give “the look”, are not in the least bit nefarious in their outlook. I am more worried about policy makers such bioethicists who sit on medical boards, like the ones in Great Britain, Belgium and Holland, or someone such as Peter Singer in the United States who cloak their severe bias in reasonable sounding arguments. As Horace called it, ecipimur specie rectie (We are deceived by the semblance of what is right).
I think if ever you encounter such questions over whose life is worthwhile we should be most wary if we are asked to rationalize our reasons. Because perhaps then the next question will be, “given the choice, would you do it again?” epitomizing the moral bankruptcy of such questions with its oversimplification, from an uncontrollable urge to quantify human worth with near mathematical precision. While those enthralled by the technological information age wonder at the ability to express the human genome by a series of ones and zeros in a computer, this does not imply the right to reduce our very real experiences of love and caring in similar fashion.
Actually allowing the experience of caring night and day for a disabled or otherwise compromised person to change us, is quite an exceptional and worthy endeavor. Especially in light of the fact that despite the appearance of constant change around us, our natural reaction is to recoil from change. Change makes us uncertain and parents willing to partake of such a life are the very definition of courageous pioneers.
I have seen the question, “given the chance, would you do it again?” on forums and in comments to news reports concerning the catastrophically disabled or ill. The question is brazenly touted as a trump card to silence those who whimper and mumble, as I did, with pitiful defenses of “value”.
Would I do it again, if given the choice? Allowing my life to be turned upside down and inside out? To lose financial stability, reasonable certainty in life, and comfort? To see aches and pains and chronic fatigue turn to ailments. To see others continue their lives with social connections, vacations, friends and knowing, knowing that I would once again suffer the heartache of those moments when my son’s life seemed to slip away, only to marvel and be filled with gratitude as he bounced back? And until when? Would I share in those simple moments of connection, when life is reduced to its most valuable elements, as has been felt by so many parents in similar situations?
Yes. In a heartbeat, I would.