Decent people across America (and the world) were appalled at this horrible injustice – including President Ronald Reagan. The next year the President wrote an article for the Human Life Review entitled "Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation" in which he dealt directly with his horror at the case of Baby Doe. It was President Reagan’s correct view that abortion concerns every person because all humanity is interdependent. To illustrate this point, the President quoted English poet and divine, John Donne (1572-1631) who wrote, “… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; ….” This is part of Donne’s 17th famous Meditation from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623). Those words follow the immortal line, “No man is an island entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; ….” The point being that humanity’s interdependence makes the welfare of one person the concern of all people. America is not made up of 300-million little islands entire unto themselves. Words like “family,” “citizen, “community,” “neighbor,” and even the United States of America attest to human interdependence. And that human interdependence included disabled and helpless Baby Doe.
The President continued:
“We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life – the unborn – without diminishing the value of all human life. We saw tragic proof of this truism last year when the Indiana courts allowed the starvation death of “Baby Doe” in Bloomington because the child had Down’s syndrome.”
The great man was deeply troubled. He said, “The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?” He reminded readers that America was founded by men and women “who shared a vision of the value of each and every individual.” The President said that this vision was clearly evident from the beginning with those towering words of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The President lamented: “Regrettably, we live in a time when some persons do not value all human life. They want to pick and choose which individuals have value. Some have said that only those individuals with “consciousness of self” are human beings.” He continued:
“Obviously, some influential people want to deny that every human life has intrinsic, sacred worth. They insist that a member of the human race must have certain qualities before they accord him or her status as a human being.”
With clarity and conviction President Reagan held that an important ingredient to America’s future was a return to acceptance of the sanctity of human life ethic. The great statesman concluded his essay by stating,
“My Administration is dedicated to preserving America as a free land, and there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.’
His words carried an ominous tone for the future regarding definitions of worthy life of “some influential people” that would discount the intrinsic value of the cognitively disabled. Little did he know that a decade later he himself would join this group of people whose intrinsic value was/is being discounted.
One grey November day
It was a dreary, grey day in November of 1994 that Ronald Reagan told the American people he had Alzheimer’s disease. Friends and foes alike were stunned at the news. It was a fate one would not wish on their worst enemy! With his irrepressible optimism, class, courage and dignity the former President expressed his love of America and gratitude to the American people for allowing him to serve as their President. Rather than focus on himself, Mr. Reagan expressed concern about public awareness of this awful disease of Alzheimer’s which afflicts millions of Americans. He called upon the goodness of Americans to support those families enduring the painful journey of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease. Of his beloved wife Nancy, Ronald Reagan lamented, “I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.” His faith in her was well placed: Throughout their soul-wrenching journey with Alzheimer’s disease, Mrs. Reagan has remained by him -- just as he knew she would be.
By extension from his own situation, I believe that Ronald Reagan was appealing to the best part of America to rally around families of people with profound disabilities in an embrace of a community of comfort and affirmation. Ronald Reagan finished his sad announcement to the American people by saying,
“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you my friends. May God always bless you.”
With those eloquent words, America’s 40th President retired from public scrutiny: the steady decline of Alzheimer’s disease awaited him.
Ronald Reagan’s imagery of entering the sunset of his life was historically poignant. In 1787, a Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia to make a Constitution defining how America would govern itself. It was no easy task. There was much division and heated debate, but eventually the Convention members had an instrument they could support. As the last members were signing the constitutional document, Benjamin Franklin looked toward the President’s chair. At the back was a painting of a sunrise. Doctor Franklin commented to a few members near him that painters often find it challenging in their art to differentiate a rising from a setting sun. Then Benjamin Franklin said:
“I have often and often, in the course of the sessions, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looking at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising, and not a setting sun.”
One hundred and ninety six years later Ronald Reagan spoke of the setting sun of his own life, and I worried. I worry that the analogy the great wordsmith chose for himself will apply to the greatness of America too. As the President would say if he could, the sun will set—perhaps never to rise again—if her people abandon the self-evident truth and founding principle: the sanctity of all human life
Missing the clarion call and its disastrous implications
Unfortunately, a significant segment of American society did not respond to Ronald Reagan’s clarion call. It has been a quarter of a century since Ronald Reagan wrote his article for the Human Life Review: America has yet to excise the malignancy of Roe versus Wade. That dreadful Supreme Court decision not only opened Hell’s gates wide to abortion on demand across the land, just as insidiously, it began to mutate the public mindset to consider what had previously been unthinkable: Killing human beings who are inconvenient, burdensome, unloved, despairing or whose disabilities fall below an arbitrary level of acceptability. Roe versus Wade was not just pernicious, it was pervasive. Evil advances in increments and lies grease the skids.
Lies of the heart
The worst lies are lies of the heart — they rot the souls of men and nations.
We now know that the 1973 Roe versus Wade Supreme Court abortion decision that struck down all state laws restricting abortion, was based on a lie. Jane Roe was actually Norma McCorvey and her pregnancy resulted from romance not gang rape, as was claimed at the time. In the years that followed Roe versus Wade, McCorvey experienced a dramatic change of heart, and moral conviction that often follows Christian conversion. For quite some time, McCorvey has been seeking to set the record straight. She has stated: “All I did was lie about how I got pregnant. I was having an affair. It all started out as a little lie. I said what I needed to say. But, my little lie grew and grew and became more horrible with each telling."
How the public mindset for abortion changed
Abortion advocates had been preparing the public to accept the necessity of abortion for years before the High Court’s decision. They effectively conjured graphic metaphors of rusty coat-hangers and back-alleys and said that thousands upon thousands of women died each year at the unscrupulous hands of criminal abortionists. U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Coop, finally set the record straight on this fiction:
According to the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics, the year before Roe Versus Wade (1972) there were 39 women who died from illegal abortions in America. Suffice to say that abortion advocates SLIGHTLY inflated the numbers to falsely shock the public into thinking there was a virtual holocaust of desperate women dying in back-alleys of cities across America. As regrettable as the 189, 160, 39 or even one death were, the oft quoted thousands upon thousand of women dying each year in America from botched abortions was simply not true. One thing is certain, after the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision, an unfathomable holocaust of children began, the likes nobody could have imagined, even in their darkest nightmares! For millions of babies, wombs became killing fields! Did anybody actually believe the killing, once unleashed, would remain confined there?
By the time that the Baby Doe case became public in 1982, withholding medical treatment, nutrition and hydration from Down’s Syndrome newborns had become routine medical practice. In the December 1982 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, a Dr. Norman Fost, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, wrote, “It is common in the United States to withhold routine surgery and medical care from infants with Down’s syndrome for the explicit purpose of hastening death.”
Promoting death from behind the respected robes of academe
In 1998, Australian bioethicist Peter Singer was appointed Decamp Professor at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. With the authority, respect and prestige of Princeton University behind him, Singer contends there are two crucial attributes necessary to being a person regardless of species: rationality and self-consciousness. By these criteria, persons include whales, monkeys, dogs, pigs, cattle, and so on. But according to this criterion, Ronald Reagan’s advanced Alzheimer’s disease disqualified the former American President from the equal moral worth of a pig or a dog.
In his ground-breaking book CULTURE OF DEATH: THE ASSAULT ON MEDICAL ETHICS IN AMERICA, Wesley J. Smith says about Peter Singer’s philosophy:
“…some humans would not be persons, including newborn human infants, whether disabled or not, and people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease or other severe cognitive disabilities – people whom Singer claims are not self-conscious or rational.”
Later Smith clarifies Singer’s intent:
“What Singer contends is that the moral worth of lives—whether animal or human—is roughly equal to their cognitive abilities. …Thus, Singer appears to believe that given the choice between saving the life of a dog and a mentally retarded human being, we should choose Fido.”
An elephant in the room?
When people avoid an obvious discussion it’s like an elephant is in the room that nobody acknowledges. Let me get to the point. According to Singer’s own standards Ronald Reagan was no longer a person when he reached the advanced stages of his Alzheimer’s disease! And according to the bioethics of Peter Singer, America should have denied the former U.S. President his humanity or even basic medical care due to his advanced disease. A Singerite disciple might respond that when Mr. Reagan was a person he amassed a fortune that allowed his family to treat him with the dignity afforded to real persons who have rationality and self-awareness. Precisely!
Parallels between Baby Doe and Terri Schiavo
The parallels between Baby Doe and Terri Schiavo are worth noting: Both cases involved mentally disabled people – one a newborn infant, the other an adult woman. Both cases involved the desire of immediate family to kill a handicapped member. Both cases had complete strangers offering to take care of (even adopt) Baby Doe and Terri Schiavo. Both cases involved court sanctioned starvation/dehydration killings. Both cases presumed the individuals were better off dead than living disabled. In fact, at a 1993 deposition, Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, stated under oath, “…she’s a total quadriplegic. Okay? In my own feelings, if Terri were to wake up and see herself the way she is now, she wouldn’t even want to live like that.” In other words, it is better to be dead than disabled. But that’s how a strapping, healthy, strong man felt looking at someone else with a serious disability. Michael Schiavo only knew the twenty-six year old Terri of yesteryear. I think that if one reads between the lines, Michael was vocalizing his own fear of being disabled.
“What I see in rehab is that 90 percent of all high lesion spinal cord injured persons want to commit suicide. After five years of living with a spinal cord injury, 5 percent contemplate suicide. It is a drastic change.”
Quality of life is a moving target!
Quadriplegia by the instalment plan
Twenty-five years ago, I was healthy, strong, agile and athletic. I would have recoiled in horror at the thought of living with progressively degenerative disease; yet in 1984, that’s exactly what happened. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Today, I move about in an electric wheelchair, my right arm is becoming increasingly useless. My left arm is the only remaining limb unaffected by MS. Unless there is some way of stopping this terrible disease, quadriplegia is a distinct possibility for my future.
I do not want to live as a quadriplegic! But do not construe what I’ve just said as a desire to die or that life can not be complete without the full use of my limbs. I am entering an advanced stage of multiple sclerosis and even my few remaining functions may yet be stripped from me! I don’t want to live like that! In fact, my future may be worse than Terri’s Schiavo’s life when she was killed. But let me say it again: That does not mean I will be better off dead!
Physical function is not the final arbiter for the value of a life. Quality of life is not the final arbiter of human value. Love is the final arbiter of life. It is Divine love not romantic love that creates life in God’s image. It is Divine love that sanctifies every human life, not sentimental affection. If that is true, then Terri Schiavo and Ronald Reagan won hands down. To know Divine love, and to love the Lover is what gives life meaning -- that is the meaning and purpose of life. Granted, humanly speaking there are people who do not believe Terri Schiavo and Ronald Reagan had value but others did (and do).
Terri Schiavo was loved and valued by her parents, her siblings and tens of thousands of people across America—most of whom she never met. Ronald Reagan was loved by his family, and millions of his fellow-Americans—most of whom he never met.
Ronald Reagan is gone now.
I have an enduring and abiding love for America – and I fear for Her. I believe that the judicial murder of Terri Schiavo in 2005, marked a moment in history when God drew a line in the moral sands of America. It is appropriate Americans who truly love their country to feel a new sense of urgency, even desperation for America’s future. Like the crew of the sinking Titanic sending flairs up into the sky, people who truly love America must call their fellow-Americans back to its original vision in the Declaration of Independence:
The self-evident truths that are so unalienable to which America’s Founding Fathers referred are the sanctity, dignity and equality of all human life. America must once again embrace the sanctity of human life ethic in its entirety, lest it lose its way, flounder on high seas of the twenty-first century, and sink into history.
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