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EXCLUSIVE: A First Look at ‘Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality’

In his newest book, Charles Camosy, the award-winning author of Resisting Throwaway Culture, provides a timely and thoughtful release on the urgent need to defend human dignity.

There is perhaps no more important value than fundamental human equality. And yet, despite large percentages of people affirming the value, the resources available to explain and defend the basis for such equality are few and far between.

Camosy tells personal stories like those of Jahi McMath, Terri Schiavo, and Alfie Evans, Camosy, a noted bioethicist and theologian, and uses an engaging style to show how the influence of secularized medicine is undermining fundamental human equality in the broader culture.

And in a disturbing final chapter, he sounds the alarm about the next population to fall if we stay on our current trajectory: dozens of millions of human beings with dementia.

 

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We don’t think very often, I suspect, about what makes different kinds of human beings equal. By “equal” I’m not referring to sameness with regard to merely accidental traits, like how high they can jump or how powerful their memory is. No, here I am invoking what makes these human beings fundamentally equal in their very essence.

Being prompted to consider such a topic may seem strange, even offensive. Many of us rightly believe that a minimally decent culture must be based on fundamental human equality. Most of the Western world, even if we sometimes disagree about what such equality means, operates as if it is obvious that all human beings have it. Indeed, this may be the great moral insight of Western culture, held by an overwhelming majority across a range of political affiliations and tribes.

But many secular philosophers and other thinkers have struggled to come up with a sound basis for this kind of fundamental human equality. The theistic founders of the United States assumed that their audiences would overwhelmingly agree that it is “self-evident” that all humans are created equal in dignity by God. But that is no longer the case for many who hold power over life and death in the Western world. In our post-Christian culture, especially (but not only) among some in medicine whose opinions are authoritative and influential, a focus on levels of ability relative to one’s autonomous will, self-awareness, rationality, productivity (especially as understood by an idolatrous consumer culture that worships buying and selling), moral capacity, communication, and the like have led some to notice that not all human beings have these abilities in equal measure.

This has happened largely without realizing that rejecting Christian theology (and similar views held in Judaism and Islam) as the foundation of values undergirding our public policies has put fundamental human equality at risk. Even secular giants like the philosopher Jürgen Habermas have come to appreciate the unique role Christian thought has played in what he called “egalitarian universalism.” There is no alternative to Christianity, says Habermas, upon which to ground our contemporary notion of universal human rights. But if we continue on our current path—if we cannot find a way to recover this theological legacy—the idea of fundamental human equality may simply die out.

Indeed, the damage already done has had disastrous consequences for some of the most vulnerable human beings among us and this book sounds a cultural alarm about these trends—especially with regard to the key stages at which whole populations have lost their fundamental equality. I think it is particularly important to focus on the stories of the individuals our rejection of fundamental human equality has put at risk: from Jahi McMath and the debate over living human beings with dead (or mostly-dead) brains to Terri Schiavo and the interesting new debate over human beings deemed to be in a vegetative state to Alfie Evans and the contemporary debate over the moral and legal standing of babies and toddlers with neurodegenerative disease.

But this book will also show that our rejection of human equality is on the verge of claiming a new, large, and growing set of victims: human beings with late-stage dementia. The COVID-19 Pandemic has revealed that a large-scale marginalization of this disabled population may already be underway. Because those who suffer from this disease in its later stages are no longer autonomous, self-aware, productive (again, especially from the perspective of consumer culture), or rational, they no longer have the traits of persons as defined by a secularized medical (and legal) establishment.

It is therefore only a matter of time before we follow our principles where they lead and deem them (and likely others with profound mental disability) human non-persons as well. The pressure to do this will be especially intense in the coming years because—as is the case to one degree or another in all of the stories just mentioned—adequately respecting the full and equality dignity of these human beings requires addressing the problem of scarce medical resources. Especially in a consumer culture which encourages us to live ever more “productive” lives, it is an open question whether we will we spend these resources on human beings who for all the world look like they fail contemporary tests for fundamental equality? The pressure will be high to avoid allocating these resources, especially as (1) fiscal indebtedness puts massive pressure on national health care budgets and (2) Baby Boomers and Generation X continue to age and many more millions more faced with very expensive dementia care. Indeed, this population is poised to double every 20 years.

Can those who hold different theological and philosophical understandings still coalesce around a vision of the good that reasserts fundamental human equality? There are reasons for hope, but we obviously don’t know yet. Here is one thing we do know: for decades now a poison, one that is fatal for fundamental human equality, has been spreading through Western culture’s most powerful institutions. That poison is a new kind of secularity, one that is hostile to the theological ideas undergirding fundamental human equality. The antidote requires dialogue that is at least open to (and perhaps even willing to embrace) traditional religious views about the God-given human nature we all share. Because medical institutions are uniquely responsible for so much of the damage, they must lead the way by engaging in cultural reforms that protect fundamental human equality. Happily, not only is this possible, but in some contexts the antidote has already been administered and the healing already begun.

 


 

This is an exclusive excerpt from Charles Camosy’s soon to be released book. Charles is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics, Fordham University ‘

Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality’ is available at  Amazon

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