How should a civil society treat human beings who do not measure up to our culture’s standard of who is valuable? May we treat those whom we deem to have less value than ourselves however we please?
A favorite Christmas movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, poses this very question to its audience, though in an indirect way. The plot of the 2000 rendition of the film goes deeper than the cartoon version, giving viewers a closer look at the Grinch’s backstory, and why he is so “Grinchy.”
The film follows the protagonist, a little girl named Cindy-Lou Who, who sets out to discover why the Grinch despises Christmas so much, and why he lives outside of “Whoville” as a hermit. She learns the Grinch was not like all the other babies in Whoville, as he was green, hairy, and ugly, unlike the other children. Because of this, from the start of his life, he was bullied and mistreated, which led to his bitterness and hatred of Christmas. Upon learning this and hearing the stories told about the Grinch from the townsfolk who hated him, Cindy-Lou seeks out the Grinch, later befriending him and beginning to love him as a fellow “Who” (the human beings in Dr. Seuss’s fictional village).
Far from being merely the plot of a simple, heartwarming Christmas story, mistreatment like what “The Grinch” received at the hands of the “Whos” has actually occurred many times in real human history.
The real-life story of John Merrick, also known as Joseph Merrick, is heart-wrenching and horrifying. Born in England in 1862 during the industrial revolution and nicknamed “The Elephant Man,” Merrick was a severely deformed man whose life serves as an example of the despicable ways that human beings can behave towards our fellow men. His story is vividly retold in the 1980 movie The Elephant Man.
Horribly disfigured by a genetic disorder which caused large tumors to grow all over his body, Merrick was subjected to some of the worst abuses a human being can endure. Put on display as a part of “freak shows” in circuses and in shops, he was considered to be a monstrosity, barely deserving of respect from the average English man or woman. Men would cackle perversely at the “freak” while women and children would shriek in terror just at the sight of him. Writing in his autobiography, Merrick recounts the following about his treatment at the hands of those who displayed him:
“I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home to my meals, and used to stay in the streets with a hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark—’That’s more than you have earned.'”
As depicted in the movie about his life, he was eventually taken in by London surgeon Frederick Treves, who befriended him and came to love John Merrick as the human being he was all along. In one scene in the film, Treves confronts one of Merrick’s captors, pointing out that “ [the captor] was the real monster, the real freak” for his treatment of poor Merrick.
The Elephant Man also raises the important question of how we should treat human beings who do not meet our standard of who is “valuable.” This plays out by the end of the movie in a vivid scene where John Merrick is accosted by a group of adolescent boys in a train station for his horrifying appearance. Moving quickly to escape his tormentors, he collides with a little girl who happens to see his face and is so horrified she screams. This leads to more people chasing Merrick, believing him to be a monster that needs to be destroyed. They chase Merrick into the bottom of the train station, and as they raise staffs to kill the monster, Merrick screams in one last, desperate plea, “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!! I’m a human being…” The crowd stops, stunned, and slowly disperses, as one-by-one, the “normal” people come to the realization: Merrick’s “inhuman” appearance is irrelevant to how he should be valued.
Mr. Merrick may have passed away over one hundred years ago, but the practice of mistreating those who do not meet our standards of whose life is valuable continues to the present. As pro-life apologist Scott Klusendorf notes, the practice of mistreating those who do not meet our standards of whose life is valuable is still ongoing today in the issue of abortion:
“Embryos fail to qualify because they are too small (“the size of a pea”), too undeveloped, can’t think or feel, can’t communicate, aren’t conscious, aren’t self-aware, don’t look like children, and don’t function like the rest of us….Suppose we pick self-awareness as decisive. Why shouldn’t those with more of that characteristic have a greater right to life than those with less—born or unborn? After all, development does not end at birth. As for appearance, human value does not turn on what an entity looks like, but what it is. John Merrick (Elephant Man) didn’t look human but undoubtedly was, while mannequins may look human but aren’t remotely so. Admittedly, an early embryo doesn’t look like an adult, but it does look exactly as a developing human should look like at that stage of development. Put simply, our intuitions can be mistaken. We must examine them in light of reason.”
As some critics of the pro-life movement are fond of asking, would pro-lifers want a child born who was severely defected? During a pro-life college campus outreach in San Diego, California, one student asked me whether I would be okay fathering a baby with Down’s Syndrome. Similar questions are often asked regarding babies born with all sorts of birth defects.
That raises a question our critics should answer first: how should we, as a civil society, treat innocent human beings who do not meet our standards of who is valuable? Is the correct answer to treat them however we please, or to admit that maybe our standards of value are flawed?
Perhaps, if the preborn are human, we should not dispose of them when they do not measure up any more than we should dispose of other vulnerable human beings.
Chris Kaczor says it well in his book The Edge of Life:
“if there is a human problem, we should seek to alleviate the problem instead of eliminating the human being involved in it.”
“History provides strong evidence in favor of an inclusive society in which all human beings are respected as persons having dignity as opposed to an exclusive society. Indeed, when considered in light of history it seems apparent that every single time the functional view has been chosen over the ontological view, gross moral mistakes were made. Although the legacy of discrimination is not entirely behind us, virtually no one today would publicly defend any of the applications of the functional view— slavery, misogyny, racism, sexism, ageism, anti-Catholicism, or anti-Semitism. Every previous division of humankind into two classes by versions of functional evaluation in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will—men exploiting women, whites selling blacks, the young dispatching the old, the rich utilizing the poor, the healthy overpowering the sickly—are nearly universally recognized as evil. Do we really have reason to believe that for the very ﬁrst time in human history we are justiﬁed in treating some human beings as less than fully persons? Or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?”
During my recent interview with neurobiologist Dr. Maureen Condic on the Pro-life Thinking podcast, she posed this very question to listeners: If the preborn (And severely damaged born human beings) are not human because they don’t measure up in some way, then what are they? Can we experiment on them at will? Can we use them as sex toys to satisfy our demand for pleasure? Can we use them as food? The horrified reactions we have to even consider these suggestions belies the contradiction in our culture’s standard of how we value those who don’t measure up.
No, a severely damaged or underdeveloped human does not deserve to be mistreated any more than a perfectly functioning and fully developed human does. The standards for value put forward into law and popular culture by those who wish to have access to abortion for severely disabled children are no less revolting than the fictional mistreatment of the Grinch and the real-life horrors experienced by John Merrick and countless others who happened to not measure up to their society’s expectations.
It is wrong to devalue human life for simply being different than us not only because it fosters hatred and cruelty to those we deem “other” but also because that line between who is and isn’t human is an arbitrary and slippery one. As pro-life apologist and pastor, Michael Spencer explains:
“Today, many defend the abortion choice by drawing an artificial line between ‘humanness’ and ‘personhood’, arguing that it is morally permissible to kill humans so long as they’re not actual ‘persons’. And when does a human become a ‘person’? According to many it is when he/she reaches a certain level of development. When does this happen? Good luck getting a straight answer from abortion supporters; they don’t agree on which ‘standard’ confers personhood status. One says it occurs when measurable brain activity is detected. Another says it happens at viability – that moment when the embryo could survive outside of the mother. Still another insists the embryo must be free of any fetal abnormality before the honor of ‘personhood’ is bestowed on her.
In short, these tiny womb-dwellers are only deemed worthy of life if they pass whatever arbitrary test the big and powerful establish for them. If they don’t, they’re crushed like vermin and disposed of like trash. Conveniently for the abortion industry, none of the above-mentioned milestones are compelling enough to build consensus among abortion supporters, which means none of these tests make any difference in the end. The only real “test” is whether or not mom wants her baby.”
Abortion has just become one more way of forcing our own selfish desires on those we deem less than valuable, just as selfish men in 19th-century London exploited those who they deemed “freaks.” The victims of our selfishness have simply been replaced.
I propose a better alternative: every human being deserves to be loved and respected, whether at Christmas or any other day of the year, whether they win the title of sexiest man/woman alive or they do not even “look” like a man or a woman, whether they are in perfect health or bed-ridden from disease and injury, whether they are a newborn baby cherished by her family or at the very beginning of life, hidden from all view inside her mother’s womb. The pro-life movement is one that is committed to inclusivity and equality for all, whether born or preborn, damaged or perfectly healthy, physically attractive or awful to even look upon.
Rest in peace, Mr. Merrick and Mr. Treves. Thank you for setting an example of what loving the “least of these” should look like for all of us.