Lebensunwertes Leben

May 2017 Pulse

In his 1983 article published in Pediatrics, the controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer argues unabashedly that nonhuman animals have greater morally significance than a seriously deformed or disabled human infant.

‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can be considered morally significant’, he writes.

Preferential treatment is extended to the disabled infant, he argues – again quite unapologetically – not because of some intrinsic worth it possesses but simply because it is a member of the species homo sapiens, an approach he obviously disapproves of.

In the second edition of his influential book, Practical Ethics (1993) Singer sees people with severe disabilities quite categorically as having ‘a life not worth living’.

Singer’s cruel utilitarianism chillingly reminds us of the dehumanising eugenics of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s that saw the extermination of certain segments of the population, guided by a similar philosophy – that some human lives can be said to be Lebensunwertes Leben (‘life unworthy of life’).

The killing of disabled people, especially newborns, is a practice that can be traced to antiquity. Despite their indubitable brilliance and enduring influence that can still be discerned in a wide range of topics today – from politics to beauty – the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle never prohibited or even called to question the practice, common in classical antiquity, of killing defective babies by exposure.

The Christian writer Miniculis Felix gives us a stark glimpse of the prevalence of infanticide in Greco-Roman society in Octavius where he writes – in a justifiably condemnatory tone – that ‘newly begotten sons [are] at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or dispatched by the violent death of strangulation …’

In fact, as Darrell Amnundsen has clearly shown, ‘the care of defective newborns simply was not a medical concern in classical antiquity’. Consequently, no law existed in antiquity against the killing of such babies.

The early Christians of course rejected and opposed this practice because according to the Scriptures all human beings without exceptions are created in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27) and must therefore be valued and protected. This includes the young, the old, the vulnerable and the disabled.

The early Christians therefore extended care to the poor, the sick, the marginalised and the disabled in ways that amazed the society of the time. So counter-cultural were they in showing compassion to the people that society had marginalised and rejected that the early Christians were often described as ‘the third race’.

The early Christians would pick up the infants that were left to die on the streets, in drains or in specially designated pits for unwanted children. They would either care for these children as their own or place them in the orphanages they ran.

Thus, unlike the most influential voices of the ancient Greco-Roman world that recommended with impunity the killing of deformed children (Cicero, De Ligibus, 3.8) and the drowning of ‘children who are at birth weakly and abnormal’ (Seneca, De Ira 1.15), Christians roundly condemn such practices as immoral.

Perhaps the clearest Christian voice in antiquity that protested against such inhumanity is that of Lactantius, who in his Divine Institutes writes: ‘Therefore when God forbids killing, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. Let no one, then, think that it is to be conceded even that newly born children may be done away with, an especially great impiety! God breathes souls into them for life, not for death’.

In the darkest period of the history of modern Europe, a young pastor-theologian spoke with inimitable clarity and unparalleled courage against the evil eugenic projects of the Führer that were responsible for the mutilation and murder of untold numbers of Jews and people with disabilities.

In his unfinished book, Ethics published shortly after his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the utilitarian principle which demeans human life and violates its God-given dignity: ‘Life created and preserved by God possesses an inherent right, completely independent of social utility … There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable’.

Bonhoeffer warns of what he called ‘the aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity’.

This warning, sounded in the last century, has not lost its relevance and urgency in the present. In fact, we may say that in the wake of the current myth of human perfectability inspired by the bewildering advances in bio- medicine and technology, this warning has taken on a pertinence and currency that Bonhoeffer could not have possibly imagined.

While the Christian Faith rejects the morbid glorification of weakness (which unfortunately can be discerned in some recent discussions about disability – but that’s another story!), with its radical concept of the suffering God, it does suggest another way of looking at and understanding weakness that is truly redemptive.

And it is this way of looking at the other that has led Christians like Lactantius in the third century and Bonhoeffer in the twentieth to speak out against the manifest atrocities of their day and to advocate an ethic of love that regards even the most vulnerable and disabled members of their societies as bearers of the divine image, whose lives must be cherished and protected and whose dignity should never be violated.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.