The one thing a child does is make a philosopher out of a parent. The day is punctuated with questions about the ultimate meaning of things--of justice, God and religion, of love and hate and truth and fairness. The older the child gets the harder the questions get, until finally you get reduced to that most elevated of all philosophical dictums--It Depends.
Yet those are the two words most of us didn't want to hear when it came to the Indiana baby called Infant Doe. This was the child with Downs Syndrome who was allowed to starve for its, and maybe its parents', own good. We are told it was "severely retarded" and that it had other afflictions as well. Its esophagus was blocked so that nutrition could not reach the stomach. The operation that might have corrected this deformity was witheld and for this, as well as other reasons, the child died.
There are things we do not know. For starters, we know precious little about the parents, except that they are young and have two children, and the mother had some experience teaching retarded children. We know very little about the baby--the extent of the retardation, the seriousness of its afflictions.
We do know something, though, about hypocrisy, and this case is replete with it. First, after the parents made what had to be a painful and wrenching decision, the hospital went to court. It did so not, it appears, because it thought the parents were morally wrong, but because it wanted protection from a suit. After that, everyone got into the act, including the local prosecutor who, like perhaps the parents, might have had some personal considerations on his mind--such as his career.
But once the matter went to court, we all somehow wanted to become children ourselves--to be told that it was wrong to kill, always and forever. The court let us down. First the lower court and then the appeals court sustained the attempt of the parents (and their doctor) to let their child perish. Missing was some sort of affirmation of the sanctity of life, a statement of bell-like clarity (not to mention volume) in which the worst parts of us (selfishness, moral ambiguity) would be chased from the courtroom. Instead, the court ruled the other way.
The Right to Life movement howled its protest. Its position is understandable. It speaks for us all when it searches, vainly and somewhat clumsily, for simple solutions to complex problems. It wants division: Here is life. Here is death. It wants things neat and simple the way we think it once was before man started to play God, talking in trimesters, knowing gender before birth, creating life in test tubes and, worse yet, being able to sustain something less than life--unfortunate creatures like Karen Quinlan. It did not want to hear the words, "It depends."
But what else is there to say? Is life always to be protected no matter what? Is the quality of that life never to be taken into account? Is the health of the baby, its agony now and in the future, not something to be considered? Is its mortality to be ignored, the possibility, say, that it will only live a short time no matter what is done for it? When it comes to Infant Doe, the lack of details makes it hard to say anything definitive. But when the parents, the doctor, the lower court and the appeals court are in agreement, you would either have to conclude that the baby was in really awful shape or Indiana has a monopoly on truly evil people.
It's easy to understand what it means to starve to death. It's normal to rage at a health system and a judicial system that, in effect, agree to kill. But it's hard to imagine what we can not see--the baby, its possible agony, the quality of the life that lay ahead of it. Its death might have been awful, but its life might have been worse. No slogan like "right to life" would remedy that.
For many people, the perfect solution would be a public policy upholding life under any and all circumstances. It sounds terrific. But it's not that simple. The question of whether you can ever take the life of an infant is one that evades an answer. The only sure answer is, "It depends"--usually no, sometimes, regrettably, yes. This is what the Indiana court said. As a result, two things died--a baby named Infant Doe, and a belief in absolutes.
We have all grown up.