It’s been fascinating to watch what amounts to a national ethics debate, with political leaders and pundits weighing in on the balance between saving tens of thousands of lives and rescuing the economy from unprecedented destruction. This debate concerns which needs to prioritize, and why.
In the midst of all the cacophony, one refreshing message has come through loud and clear: The vast majority of Americans are more than willing to make extreme sacrifices to protect the lives of their more vulnerable neighbors, loved ones, and colleagues. Does this mean that our nation is on the cusp of a historic reformation toward truly valuing all human life?
The signs are mixed. If you look at the conglomerate of statements and actions by public leaders over the last few weeks, it’s fair to say our nation is in a state of deep cognitive dissonance.
On one hand, you have traditional liberals like CNN’s Jake Tapper quoting from the Talmud that “anyone who destroys a life is considered by scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated, “We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”
Of course we’ve all heard the old adage, “Watch what I do and not what I say.” This is the same governor who signed a law basically allowing abortion until birth and whose state lit up the One World Trade Center to celebrate its passage.
Here in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam is pursuing a similar course, calling for united efforts to “save lives” while granting special protections to abortion clinics to continue taking lives, despite banning other elective surgical procedures in the name of preserving resources for the Wuhan virus. On Good Friday, he signed into law measures that roll back more than a decade of health protocols and informed-consent requirements that can save the lives of women and children in abortion clinics.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post published a deeply disturbing article on how hospitals and health-care systems across the country are engaged in agonizing, internal debates about whether to implement a do-not-resuscitate policy for coronavirus patients, “regardless of the wishes of the patient or family members—a wrenching decision to prioritize the lives of the many over the one,” if they face a shortage of medical equipment and protective gear.
Another article reported discussions about potential rationing protocols that would distribute ventilators and other life-saving resources on the basis of life expectancy and pre-existing health conditions. This has prompted some pro-life advocates to express “serious concern with recent reports of planned discrimination on the basis of disability.” The Wall Street Journal reported on April 9 that such complaints have been filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights.
This isn’t the first time in history we’ve faced these kinds of moral quandaries. Yet we’re coping with this tragedy without the same Judeo Christian moral grounding of many others in modern history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.
First, let me make clear, I’m not suggesting this example is equivalent to the Wuhan flu crisis. There are many large and obvious differences. Still, it provides at apropos look at what seemed like a zero-sum ethical choice in a crisis situation.
Those in charge of the Titanic could have decided to save those with the greatest life expectancy and most mental potential, but they didn’t. We all recall the poignant cry of “women and children first.” Why? Because in the 1900s, our society still largely adhered to a Judeo-Christian worldview of the strong protecting the most vulnerable rather than the reverse, the vulnerable sacrificing their lives to protect the potential of the strong.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame today’s political leaders and medical professionals for trying to troubleshoot in advance one of most excruciating dilemmas of our times. The issue is not that they are trying to solve the problem.
The real issue is: what is their foundational starting point for the conclusions they reach? Are they starting from a Judeo-Christian framework that exalts a selfless, “lay-down-one’s-life” model, or are we reverting to a secularist “survival of the fittest” mentality? We’ve been down that road before in world history, and we all know the horrors to which it leads.
But there is hope, and it involves a frightening reality: We face a significant, moral crossroads as a nation. As we navigate these heartbreaking times together, will we allow them to ignite a moral awakening to the inherent value of all human life—whether unborn, physically challenged, or at the end of life? Or will we make decisions based on moral relativism and further entrench ourselves on the path to cheapening human life into a disposable commodity?
“Only through the belief that the strong are bound to protect and save the weak because God wills it so, can we hope to keep self-sacrifice, and love, and heroism, and all the things that make us glad to live and not afraid to die.” wrote Henry Van Dyke, a Presbyterian minister and academic, in his 1912 article, “Spiritual Consolation to the Survivors of the Titanic.”
Of course, we can choose to live in a world where life is defined by political expediency instead of eternal worth, but will we be glad to live in it?