February 4, 2004

Someone Who Doesn’t Love Them?

The Children’s Rehabilitation Center is one of the proudest boasts of Catholic healthcare in the Archdiocese of New York. It is located in White Plains and cares for youngsters with the most serious of physical and psychological disabilities. In the fall I had the pleasure of visiting the Center in the company of its gifted and dedicated medical director, Dr. Maria Pici, and members of both its staff and its board of directors.

We moved from room to room. In one, tots afflicted with Down syndrome, spinal bifida and the disabling effects of meningitis were being led through games designed to teach them to identify shapes and colors. In another, older children who could not see or speak were being cleverly instructed by means of rhythm and music. And in all, highly professional doctors, nurses and staffpersons were showering upon their young charges the best that medical science has to offer plus a measure of love and compassion that could not help but touch the heart.

There was one room, however, that made a particularly deep impression on me. On its floor was spread a gymnast’s mat on top of which lay a young doctor. In front of him was a kind of highchair in which sat a boy of four years of age. The boy, José by name, was picking up little Styrofoam balls with the toes of his left foot and carefully placing them in a brightly colored basket situated on the mat between him and the doctor. With each success the doctor applauded enthusiastically, and José smiled broadly.

Why was this child using the toes of his left foot to pick up the Styrofoam balls? Because he had no right foot, and no hands or arms either. He was just the trunk of a boy, one leg, a head covered with shiny black hair, and a face with a smile that lit up the room. Before long I found myself applauding along with the doctor, and with each burst of applause José rewarded me with one of his glorious smiles.

That evening I was back in my residence on Madison Avenue. On the floor next to my desk stood a pile of publications of various kinds that I had saved over a period of weeks to read whenever there was a free moment. The two on top were newsmagazines. On the covers of both were sonogram photographs of beings within their pregnant mothers. The photographs on the covers and inside the magazines as well were nothing short of astounding. One could see everything with crystalline clarity. The beings within their mothers had round little bodies, two arms, two legs, heads on which some had hair, hands which some were waving, and faces on which were found in several of the photographs bright, beautiful smiles.

The theme of both of the articles illustrated by the sonogram photographs was, in effect, a question: Would it be right to kill these little beings?

The articles were written with careful attention to political correctness. Thus, for the most part they avoided asking if it would be legitimate to kill the beings in the photographs, preferring to speculate as to whether it would be legitimate to choose to kill them, somehow suggesting that choosing to kill is perhaps less blameworthy than simply killing. Similarly, both articles were careful to avoid, where they could, the use of the words "babies" and "children" to identify the beings under discussion with their little bodies, two arms, two legs, waving hands and smiles. Hence, the beings were regularly styled "fetuses," again perhaps to suggest that it might be less offensive to kill or choose to kill them if they bore an unfamiliar and antiseptic designation.

As I studied the photographs, I could not get José out of my mind. Might we properly kill or choose to kill him, I asked myself, at least if we were to invent some medical-sounding, Latin expression like "puerulus," for example, to take the place of "little boy" in discussing him? Would it thus be ethical, moral, honorable, decent or – if you will – other than manifestly evil to "terminate his life" or choose to "terminate his life," given his at least appearing to be somewhat less than what one might expect of an ideal human being endowed by the Creator with an "inalienable right" to live?

For anyone who ever had the pleasure of being with José and his doctor in the Children’s Rehabilitation Center, I have no doubt that the answer would be loudly and clearly in the negative. True, José does not have the arms that most human beings have and that the "fetuses" in the sonogram photographs clearly have. True, José does not have the two legs that most human beings have and that the "fetuses" in the sonogram photographs clearly have. True, José does not wave his arms as most human beings do and as several of the "fetuses" do as well. Whatever of this, he does smile as most human beings do and as several of the "fetuses" in the sonogram photographs also do; and if we are to believe some of our greatest philosophers, there could be no more telling and compelling proof of his humanity. Accordingly, even if someone should wish to call him "puerulus" or anything else for that matter, killing him, no more or less than choosing to kill him, would be an outrage.

And if all of this be true, what about the beings within their mothers, the beings in the sonogram photographs? Are they ethically available to be killed or chosen for killing? Would "terminating their lives" be any less wicked than doing the same for José?

Some would seem to answer that the beings within their mothers are fair game to be killed or chosen for killing, but the same cannot be said of José. Their reasons, though never more than hinted at, appear to be as follows:

First, the beings in the sonogram photographs are within their mothers; and for this reason their lives can be licitly snuffed out. Were they elsewhere, the situation would be different.

For me this point of view has always evoked a rather special repugnance, and the reason is quite personal. When I was a boy, I contracted a form of infantile paralysis known as "bulbar poliomyelitis." Victims of this malady were at that time often placed for life within huge steel cases known as "iron lungs," outside of which they could not breathe or live. I was fortunate enough to have escaped this horror but knew of and had seen photographs of a young man in a neighboring village who had not escaped it. My parents were friends of the young man’s parents, and their admiration of them, and sympathy for them, knew no limit. From hearing my father and mother speak about the matter, I was quite secure that, whatever happened to me, wherever I had to be put, I would be protected, cared for and loved. My location within the steel case or anywhere else would not make me anything less than Edward Egan, son of Thomas and Genevieve.

Second, some would feel (it could hardly be more than a feeling) that unlike the beings within their mothers, José is not to be deprived of his life because we can see him and thus recognize him to be a human being, a person much like ourselves, though considerably unlike ourselves in several rather important aspects. Why being able to be seen – or even heard, touched or smelled – would have any relevance as regards one’s right to live, I am not sure. All the same, whatever the thought processes behind this unusual "feeling," events have contrived to render them utterly invalid. For, thanks to the sonogram photographs, we now see the beings within their mothers, the beings with their arms, legs, waving hands and smiles. Indeed, we see them with marvelous clarity, and we know exactly and precisely what we are seeing.

Was there ever a time when one could with honor maintain that the beings within their mothers might be legitimately killed because there was no secure and certain knowledge as to what they were? We leave that to historians. For if there ever were such a time, it has surely passed. Look at the photographs on the covers of the two newsmagazines and the other photographs inside as well and you will see everything clearly, poignantly, inescapably.

The Children’s Rehabilitation Center is blessed with a splendid swimming pool in which children are exercised by skilled doctors and nurses in swimming suits and goggles. The room in which the pool is located brought back bittersweet memories of a similar facility in which I had been assisted by doctors and nurses to rebuild my arms, legs and back after polio many years ago. As we stood next to the pool, listening to the playful cries of the children echoing back and forth against the tile walls and listening as well to an explanation of the effectiveness of the pool for children with certain forms of paralysis, something else was tenaciously tugging at my mind and heart. Thus it was that with no sufficient preamble I interrupted the conversation to ask Dr. Pici, "What about José? What is going to become of him?"

Dr. Pici took hold of my arm. "Don’t worry about José," she said. "He’s a bright little boy. He will make it. Trust me, he will do just fine. Everyone here loves him, and everyone here feels just as you do."

"And the children in the sonogram photographs," I asked myself that evening as I sat at my desk inspecting the newsmagazines, "is there someone who doesn’t love them?"

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York