The ability to decide the worth of human life

The most dangerous people are those who feel, not only that they have the ability to decide the worth of human life, but that they should have the power to do so.

The most dangerous of the dangerous are those who tell you that the worth of human life is in some way decided by science. They portray science as an objective and morally neutral unfolding of facts and information. They define people by their labels, by the “scientific” boxes we put them in. They tell us that some people just can’t do what others can do, shouldn’t expect what others should expect and simply don’t matter as much.

“Scientific kindness ” is prescribed for the less fortunate. We are told that we need to do what is best for them, that often they can’t know or don’t know. Read any of the recent proposals for “new asylums” and you get a sense of “scientific kindness.”

It is a curious and dangerous conceit that any person can legitimately decide the worth of another. I still remember the first time I met someone who had a lobotomy and the assurance of one of the people who worked with him it was for his own good.

The most dangerous atrocities are those done in “kindness”. They excuse all manners of terror and brutality. The history of mental health in this society is an inventory of what was “scientifically kind” in its time. Some legislators like Tim Murphy tell us that the most coercive things we do to the “seriously mentally ill” are in fact the most kind. When they are asked to defend their kindness they normally respond by telling you your question is proof you really don’t care.

There are people who believe that the most real thing about you is your race, your age, your economic status, your religious faith, your sexual orientation or identity, your cultural group or….. your psychiatric diagnosis. They believe “this most real thing” defines the kind of person you really are and the the injuries, the hurt, the injustices you struggle with are the direct consequence of the kind of person you “really” are. In blaming the victim, in telling people they are the author of their life circumstances they act as apologist for the worst things we as a society and as a people do to each other.

There is a book you should read that odds are you have never heard of.  It is called “The Unit” and is written by Ninni Holmquist. I first read it years ago and recently reread it. It is a quiet and unpretentious book but, I believe, an important one.

It is a novel set some time in the future- seemingly in a Scandanavian country.  The population has freely decided that some people are worthwhile and some are not.  They are dispensable.  They are the ones who no longer contribute to society.  In the book it is any female over 50 unmarried and without children.  It is any male over 60 unmarried and without children.

It is a book about Dorritt Weger.  She has just turned 50 and has been turned down by a man she was having an affair with.  He says he “might love her” but he doesnt think so.  She goes to the Second Reserve Unit for Biological Material.  There she is to live out her life while being expected to take part in all kind of experiments and organ donations until finally she makes her “final donation.” At the end of the book they tell her it is time for her final donation. The next day she is to “donate” her heart to a younger woman who really needs it.

One of the eeriest part of the book is how “kindly” she is treated there.  Her keepers see themselves as doing their humantarian duty and after all Dorrit and her friends are “dispensable” and they can finish their lives by being a service to the people who count.  It is a scary book about what so called “free people” can be convinced to do in the name of science and humanitarianism. 
No one has the right or ability to decide the value of another’s life. No one should have the power. What we do now will not only affect what we are now, but may also write the story of what we are to become.


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