The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
—William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of
,” IV.1.184-187. Venice
|Maggie Smith as Portia in |
"The Merchant of Venice"
In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” the judge, Portia, pleads for the plaintiff to temper his legal claim to justice with mercy for the defendant. In a recent post, “Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar,” Richard Dawkins begs mercy from “the haters,” those “who go out of their way to find such tweets” as he posted publicly, despite his intention to share only with “the minority of people who follow both her [a woman who had expressed her uncertainties about aborting her child if she were to learn it would be affected by Down Syndrome] and me.” (You can find his full post here.)
In response to her uncertainties, Dawkins had Tweeted™, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” In seeking to quench the fiery response to his Twitterpations (limited as they are to 140 characters), he offered a 255-word explanation. It suffers from certain anachronisms and additions which would understandably be seen as belated revisions or even second-thought afterthoughts in the eyes of even his most ardent supporters.
Most importantly to my friend and mentor,
Paul Louis Metzger, is
Dawkins’ rebuttal of the accusation that he was advocating eugenics. Eugenics
can be narrowly defined the process of selecting preferable traits, especially
within human persons, and seeking to enhance those traits within a population
by encouraging procreation by those who possess those traits. Most, however,
consider the eugenics that has been practiced to be a clearer indicator of the
process: removing from the procreating gene pool those deemed to possess less
desirable traits, either through forced sterilization (as has occurred among
the developmentally disabled in the United States) or outright genocide (as is
the more frequently employed means).
To be clear, neither definition would apply to the decision to advocate aborting the lives of children found to be affected by Down Syndrome. Dr. Metzger is correct to point out that Dawkins’ position is not one of eugenics, but of mere utilitarianism. Guided, as Dawkins claims to be, by “a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering,” he holds that “the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.”
Dr. Metzger is careful and correct in admonishing us “to practice the Golden Rule (
Matthew 7:12) and do to others
what we would want them to do to us. We should try and interpret their claims
in keeping with their intended aims rather than with how we might wish to
interpret them for partisan purposes, just like we would want others to
interpret our positions as we intend them.” (Dr. Metzger’s full post can be
I whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Metzger, and am often indebted to those who
are willing to engage in dialogue with me, especially when they request
clarification when my points are vague or muddled—or even when they are not
unclear, but merely objectionable to those dear friends.
Among the conversation partners with whom I am currently engaged, though, are those who are seeking to navigate the very difficult and narrowing channel between hospice care and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). With the recent passage of California’s End-Of-Life Options Act, there is an assumption that hospice providers will become what we are already often mistaken to be: “the black-pill people,” aka “the death-squad.” Hospices have traditionally followed the pattern set by Dame Cicely Saunders (more about the founder of the modern hospice movement here). We seek neither to hasten nor postpone a patient’s natural death. Why? Because, in the words of Dame Saunders, “You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”
This basic philosophy is being attacked by those who want hospice to “evolve” in order to cooperate in accommodating and referring, if not actively providing, physician-assisted suicide. Now legalized in six of the
, and moving toward
legalization in fifteen more, PAS is advocated strongly by an organization now
known as “Compassion & Choices.” (Their website can be found here; I have addressed my concerns
with what was previously called “The Hemlock Society” in a post you can find here.) United States
I find a striking similarity between the position that Dawkins takes, and the one taken by the organization founded by Derek Humphry. In both cases, they advocate that there are human persons who would be better off dead than alive. For Humphry, the choice is presumably in the hands of the human person who experiences a life-threatening diagnosis and chooses, like Brittany Maynard (Compassion & Choices’ fundraiser, “The Brittany Maynard Fund,” eulogizes her here), to proactively end her life by committing suicide (to express it in terms most of us would use). Dawkins, however, prescribes death as the moral choice “from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” In short, others should decide on behalf of the child that she would be better off dead than alive.
Some would see a difference between these two decisions. On the one hand, there is the exemplary suicide of Brittany Maynard, intended to preclude her own suffering by choosing to die while she was still able to increase the sum of her happiness by doing so. On the other hand, Dawkins recommends the homicide of a child in order to preserve someone else’s happiness by preventing what he would presume to be their suffering, caused by failing to end the life of their child.
But there is less difference here than you might imagine. Dawkins has backtracked from his earlier statement. He claims that while the woman in question could end the life of her child, he was not deciding for her that she should “Abort it and try again.” Those claiming to offer Compassion & Choices would say they merely want others to know they could end their life. But if I read Dawkins’ intent correctly, what he meant to say privately has changed, now that it has been heard publicly. If what Humphry’s progeny are saying publicly is any indication, then it should not surprise us that some whose lives are considered to lack a sufficient level of quality…well, the message we are hearing is that we should end our lives.
Shakespeare’s Portia wanted mercy to temper justice. Dawkins wants mercy to temper reactions to his inadvertently public position on aborting lives of insufficient quality. And where do we find the mercy of Humphry & Company? “Compassion” would seem to include Choices that foster mercy toward the terminally ill, but not what amounts to mercy-killing—even if, as the current PAS laws require, you make the patient administer their own hemlock.