by Gail Quinn
May 15, 1998
Among the wreckage when a marriage is dissolved is the break-up of a home. Furniture, once chosen, lived with and enjoyed by a couple become simply things that are yours or mine or the kids' or nobody's.
When a mother dies, things she cherished become for a while more than just things to those who mourn. But in the end, you understand that they are just property. And property can be sold, given away, divided, put to use or discarded.
Today human beings are also treated as things.
In Arizona it is not illegal to sell your daughter, as long as you are not selling her for purposes of prostitution, slavery or servitude.
In Tennessee, a man's right not to have a child outweighs a woman's right to give their frozen embryos a chance to live.
In England, when it was announced that thousands of unclaimed frozen human embryos were going to be destroyed, numerous women from around the world offered to adopt, pledging to bear and raise these human beings if they were allowed to live. No way, said the government. These things had to go.
A New York court recently declared human embryos to be nothing more than things, property to be dispensed to one party or other or destroyed. Like the furniture divvied up at the dissolution of a marriage, human embryos frozen during a marriage were the subject of a custody battle five years after the couple divorced. Who owned the embryos? The man who provided the sperm who wanted them destroyed to avoid having children he did not want with his former wife? The woman who provided the ova and considered them her last chance at motherhood? The courts sided with the man because the couple had signed a contract stating both of them had to agree to the use of their frozen embryos. They didn't agree. She wanted to let them live. He didn't. He won by default. But how do you win when winning means that human lives, human lives you helped to create, will remain in a medical/legal limbo or be destroyed? What is this human life if not the child of the parents who helped create him or her? Increasingly the answer seems to be that, "humanness" aside, it is property. A commodity.
When is a person not a person? Or, when is it OK to treat a human being as something other than human?
A number of organizations that study diseases, and some members of Congress, argue that human embryos should be created by cloning to be experimented upon and then destroyed. In fact, they say it should be illegal to let these embryos continue to live after a certain amount of time has elapsed and they have served their usefulness.
According to Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 abortion decision, you do not have to treat human life as "meaningful" until the process of birth has begun. President Clinton insists on even more latitude. He would allow children to be killed during delivery, and so he twice vetoed the bill to ban partial-birth abortions.
Pregnant with three babies or more? The "in" thing to consider among some fertility specialists is selective reduction. This means nothing more than identifying on ultrasound the heart of the baby or babies you want to eliminate, then injecting potassium chloride or other lethal drug into the heart. The idea is that the one(s) not chosen for death will thrive better without having to compete with in-utero siblings.
On the other hand, states protect corporations as "persons." The question of whether states can legally do this has been appealed as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, the Court affirmed, states can choose to do so. Bizarre, isn't it? The highest court in the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court, affirms states' rights to protect corporations as "persons," while emphatically denying that they may protect human beings as persons prior to birth.
A human being is not a human being, a person is not a person--but a corporation is. The implications are mind-boggling.
And then there are trees. Joyce Kilmer called our attention to the awesome stately beauty of trees, reminding us that "only God can make a tree." In his time and culture, social leaders were not adjudicating the custody of human embryos or pushing for the destruction of unborn children. If they had, he might have put pen to paper to remind us as well that only God can create a human life. And human life, God's most awesome gift, deserves even more protection than trees.
Gail Quinn is Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.