Last Things
A Matter of Life and Death

 

When G.K. Chesterton wrote that "sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late", and that "It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists", his words had a general application, but there was one specific and new kind of tyranny that he had in mind. "It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air."

His words are from a book written in 1922 called Eugenics and Other Evils. Eugenics (from the Greek meaning "good birth") is the term for a movement that was gathering steam in the early twentieth century among Western intellectuals, which sought to "improve the race" by encouraging some types of people to breed and preventing others from doing so. The background ideology derived from the popular misunderstanding and misapplication of Darwinís theory of evolution by natural selection. In other words, they wanted to breed human beings selectively, like racehorses or roses.

Chesterton saw Britain come close to accepting the basic principle of eugenics in 1912, when, at the instigation of none other than the young Winston Churchill, the Government introduced into parliament a draft Mental Deficiency Bill that was designed to prevent those deemed "feeble-minded" from having children. Chesterton debated the principle over and over again with such men as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who both supported a eugenic policy with enthusiasm and verve. The opposition he stirred up resulted in the teeth of the Bill being drawn before it passed into law. [On all of this, see the special issue of The Chesterton Review on Fascism, February/May 1999, especially the article by Russell Sparkes, "The Enemy of Eugenics".]

After Chestertonís death in 1936, the Nazis brought the idea into disrepute in a different way: by carrying it out. For a while after the horrors of the concentration camps had been exposed, nothing resembling any Nazi policy could pass muster in the civilized world as worthy of serious consideration. Since then time has passed, and a generation has come and gone. Technology has become more sophisticated; so have the euphemisms which we use to disguise our intentions. Chesterton anticipated even this. "The thing died at last, and the stench of it stank to the sky," he wrote of the earlier eugenic policy of the Prussian state. "It might be thought that so terrible a savour would never altogether leave the memories of men; but menís memories are unstable things."

It would be irresponsible of us not to take note in this first issue of Second Spring of the fact that the tyranny of the eugenicists has come upon us. It has done so not simply through the imposition of laws, but by a combination of permissive legislation and commercial pressure. Abortion (even abortion up to birth in some cases) was only the beginning. Human embryos are now routinely created in laboratories and stored for experimentation or implantation. Thousands are destroyed each year. The cloning of mammals has already happened; the first cloned human beings will be announced before long, without a doubt. Parents are right now trying to choose the sex of their children; soon they will be offered the opportunity to choose from a "shopping list" of other characteristics. Gay and lesbian couples see the prospect of having children created from cells other than sex cells. Children with two mothers and no father, or three fathers and no mother, or no parents at all, are now a real possibility.

Meanwhile our Western populations are declining and ageing in a way that promises socio-economic disaster. Too many old people; not enough young earners to keep the economy going. The obvious solution? Encourage bigger families, and welcome with open arms the hard-working immigrants and refugees who want to enter the country. But this is not "politically correct". Instead, the policy that seems to be emerging involves putting the old ones out of their misery, and disguising what we are doing so that we can feel good about it. Thus the new eugenics goes hand in hand with a movement to legalize euthanasia. Once again, the policy is to apply to human beings the same rules we apply to animals, in this case by extending the idea of "mercy killing".

What makes it so wrong to treat a human being as we would treat an animal is precisely the difference between a person and an animal. But though many people seem to have forgotten the distinction, are they fully prepared for the consequences of doing so? Chesterton was not so sure. "Say to them ĎIt is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also even in regard to the important question of the extension of human dietí; say this to them, and beauty born of murmuring sound will pass into their faces. But say to them, in a simple, manly, hearty way ĎLetís eat a man!í and their surprise is quite surprising."

An animal is a wonder and a mystery. It is much more than a machine. It has feelings and value. It should be treated with respect and even affection. But the wonder and mystery of the human person is greater yet. To treat persons, and human bodies, like so much organic matter, as the advocates of euthanasia and eugenics would have us do, is to meddle in things we do not understand, engendering real consequences we cannot hope to predict. Physical suffering is a great evil, but moral evil is greater yet.

Is this "anti-science"? Hardly. It is anti-materialism, anti-utilitarianism, anti-nominalism. What is at issue here is not science, but philosophy. A narrow philosophy creates a narrow science. Today we are all in peril, for a science as narrow as the blade of a hatchet is in the hands of men who have the strength - and the moral weakness - to wield it against the image and likeness of God.

 

G.K. Chestertonís Eugenics and Other Evils can be found in the Ignatius Press edition of the Collected Works, Vol. IV. Also highly recommended is C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Fount Paperbacks).

For excellent and authoritative papers on abortion, cloning, stem cell research, euthanasia and other life-and-death issues, see the web-site of the Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics in London (www.linacre.org).