Materialism and the Devaluing of Life – Part 1

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Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty.

Materialism focuses attention on material security and quality of life in this world, yet the continued consistent application of the ideal of a high quality of life finally results in a devaluing and loss of life. That was the message of speakers at the L'Abri Fellowship conference on Life and Liberty, held Feb. 13-14 in Rochester, Minnesota, in two presentations that focused particularly on euthanasia and the history of the American eugenics movement.

Henk Reitsma of the L'Abri Fellowship's Dutch facility discussed the deterioration of respect for life in the Netherlands under the impact of the legalization and acceptance of euthanasia. Reitsma said we should not think that "we're on the safe side of the ocean, [that] this is not really a topic which is so relevant to us today." This is because the Dutch "serve as a window for the rest of the world." The beliefs now common in the Netherlands transcend borders in the Western world, and they are "painfully relevant." Indeed, these ideas of quality of life affect faithful Christians who may not at all agree with the radical departure from Christian morality now so common, because we are "children of our culture." He noted that for Francis Schaeffer, concern with the right to life was "a logical extension of his apologetic," not simply an "add-on." Reitsma said that a loss of belief in God affects how we deal with other people, and to "a loss of life and meaning."

Reitsma's own grandfather was killed involuntarily at a home for the elderly in the Netherlands. While a traditional Christian belief in the sanctity of life precludes euthanasia, people today want to know why we don't put people out of their suffering just as we do with animals. The contemporary world is "profoundly out of touch with what it is that makes it so special to be human." But we are different. "We think about how people will perceive and remember what we are doing." Each human life is endowed with "a weight of glory," Reitsma said.

A problem for this traditional understanding of the worth of humans is the utilitarian ethic. Pleasure is identified with good, pain with evil. But Reitsma said, "for outcomes in a human life … meaning is more important than the presence or absence of pain." He pointed out that the Bible says that "if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong" (I Pet. 3:17). He also noted that the word "compassion," in its historic formulation, includes the meaning of "to hold on," or "to endure." True compassion, Reitsma said, is "to come alongside your fellow [suffering] human being[s], and hold on to them." For human life, "the presence or absence of pain is not all-defining." He spoke of an elderly frequent visitor to the Dutch L'Abri facility, noteworthy for her acute thinking, who declined to take sedatives to relieve the pain of her illness because they would cloud her mind. But Reitsma pointed out that ironically, in general, the more we have sedatives available in the Western world, the less remaining pain we are willing to accept.

In the utilitarian ethical context of the contemporary West, the meaning of compassion has been altered by the reigning doctrine of moral autonomy. Now it means, "providing someone with the space in which they can be fully autonomous, and do their own thing." Pro-euthanasia movies carry the message that "because your life is not perfect, it's not worth living … when the immaterial fades, and the material becomes all-defining, the definition of what it is to be compassionate shifts. Then physical pain avoidance, and freedom in terms of immediate physical longings and lusts, becomes dominant."

The "quality of life" commitment of the Western elite has had perverse results in Asia, Reitsma said, where pre-natal sex identification technology and abortion have resulted in the loss of 160 million girls, with a resulting sex ratio of 122 boys to 100 girls in China and 112 boys to 100 girls in India. This catastrophic ratio is different from that of the past, when wars at times resulted in an imbalance of females over males. The latter imbalance was accommodated at times with polygamy. But a male over female ratio results in a more violent society, with rape common.

With philosophical materialism and utilitarian ethics coming to the fore as Western society becomes more secular, euthanasia is a "concept on the move," according to Reitsma. Whereas in the Netherlands, statistics once distinguished between active and passive euthanasia, now only cases of lethal injection are considered euthanasia, passive measures to effect death, and even physician assisted suicide, are no longer counted. Thus, Rick Santorum's claim that 10% of Dutch deaths are the result of euthanasia may be correct, or approximately correct, although by the current Dutch definition it was inaccurate.

Yet the rapidly rising rate of actively killing patients by lethal injection was made possible by the acceptance of passive measures, such as "continuous deep sedation," which keeps patients presumed to be near the end of life unconscious to avoid pain. In a world such as are emerging, people not only choose death for themselves (which remains wrong), but also for the weak and vulnerable that may not have chosen it for themselves. Such people may be eliminated for the good of society, which is caring for them, as well as their own suffering, according to the emerging utilitarian ethic. Reitsma mentioned the case of his own grandmother, who had a home for the elderly within 5 kilometers of where she lived, but moved instead to a conservative Christian home many hundreds of kilometers away, in a community where she knew no one, for fear that at the local home, she would be put to death. Against such an emerging secularist society, Reitsma said "to be human is to care for the vulnerable and the weak." It means that compassion involves much continuous care for those who may be suffering greatly, with little hope of a return to normal life. But it is what the Biblical doctrine of man in the image of God requires, and is a sure guard against the cancerous growth of a culture which chooses death over life.

The same choice of death over life, the essential part euthanasia, is also involved in eugenics, which has as its objective a more perfect life and the elimination of imperfections. This was discussed in a presentation by Dr. Christopher Hook, reviewed in a subsequent article.

Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty. He attended Eastern Mennonite College (now University) receiving a B.A. degree in history and sociology, and an M.S. in library science from Drexel University.