Stairway to Hell
by Earl Aagaard, PhD
Professor of Biology, Pacific Union College
In 1988, the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs affirmed that even profoundly damaged humans have a right to be affirmed as ends, and not means; at least after their birth. Now, in 1995, the Council recommends we abandon that bit of wisdom, and add newborn anencephalic babies to the list of those who will not be so protected.
Since this decision is not based on an absolute, such as the sanctity of all human life, it can offer us no logical stopping place. The current reassurance that less severely damaged children and those in persistent vegetative states will not be used as organ donors does not represent stability. Whenever the majority view among "experts in medicine and ethics" changes, and the need for organs overcomes our squeamishness, the AMA Council will again want to be consistent, and the list will grow. Who will be next? Condemned prisoners? The severely retarded? We can only wait and see.
The Council is eager to assure us that this is not a "slippery slope" situation, and in this they are correct. A slippery slope implies a lack of control; a sudden, unplanned, and accidental descent. Plainly that is not what is going on. What we are seeing is a careful, step by step descent down a long stairway. We can, if we choose, stop and examine our surroundings, including where we have been and the destination toward which we journey. And what awaits us in the abyss is exactly what has awaited every society that divides the human species into "protectable" and "not protectable" categories. What awaits us is a world in which the strong prey upon the weak, using the bodies of the powerless for any purpose considered sufficiently important by those with the power to impose their will.
Will we learn from history, or insist on repeating it here in the "land of the free"? Surely the last fifty years have made it abundantly clear that taking deliberate, conscious steps down our stairway is not fundamentally different from sliding down the slippery slope. Oh yes, the trip is a little more pleasant, as we soothe ourselves with sophistic reasoning about caring and altruism. But the only real difference is that it will take a little longer to find ourselves in Hell.