21 June 2014
Two days ago, Annie, a 2-year old child with a heart condition, died in Illinois because she was refused a heart transplant.
The reason? She was born with Down Syndrome, and had what are often referred to as “special needs”. In the U.S., children with disabilities such as Down Syndrome are nearly always automatically removed from organ donor transplant lists. Their lives are deemed less valuable by medical professionals, administrators, insurance companies, and state and federal law-makers and enforcers.
As journalist Jenna Glatzer wrote at Salon.com a few years back, “In the U.K., the policy is absolute: No medical center will give a transplant to a patient with Down syndrome. [But] in the U.S. policy is unofficial — there’s no written rule excluding people with disabilities. However, in practice, the statistic speaks for itself: Only one person with Down syndrome has ever been granted a heart transplant in this country.”
One hospital medical director put it bluntly to Glatzer: “My main aim is to make people live and to become independent human beings that will live a fulfilled life. I have grave doubts as to whether … a Down’s sufferer [would] ever be able to lead a totally independent life. If asked to make a decision between a normal person and a Down’s patient, [we take] the person who is the most whole.”
Such life-and-death decisions are made in the medical industry all the time, and often the reasons provided by doctors or medical administrators are not as blatantly bigoted as the one above. (Though this still leaves aside the basic problem that such decisions are subject to the whim of unaccountable medical technocrats, rather than truly being in the hands of the people themselves, as per the norms of what is generally understood as “democracy”).
To me, though, this is not really a “medical” issue or problem, at base. It is a social one. It is not the medical field which is the root of the devaluation of the lives of disabled people in this society, though the medical-industrial complex has historically and presently played an outrageous role in justifying and contributing to such devaluation.
At base, it is about what our society as a whole deems to be a “worth-while” life. Starting with the advent of the industrial revolution, it came to be an accepted fact that the purpose of society was to produce, accumulate, and exchange as many goods, commodities, and wealth as quickly as possible. If that meant throwing children into factories; so be it. Paying starvation wages; so be it. And if it meant casting aside to die all those individuals deemed incapable of engaging in sufficiently profitable and productive labor in the factories, mills, and workhouses emerging everywhere; so be it.
This is why the US has institutionalized, sterilized, and killed millions of disabled people over the course of its existence (and even today continues such practices). In a capitalist economy based on prioritizing profit and breakneck production over all else — in which cutthroat competition reigns supreme as per the dystopian dictates of “survival of the fittest” free-marketeers and ideologues — all those humans who are incapable of laboring under the prevailing rate and pace of industrial exploitation are considered mere “burdens” by the bean-counters and cynics who rule over the economy (and consequentially the polity itself).
We are not humans first in such a society, but rather “human resources” compelled to sell ourselves on a “job market.” The value of our labor — i.e., our capacity to produce surplus value, or profit, for a prospective employer — is what determines our value in society as a whole.
The lower one’s “marketability” as such a human resource, the lower one’s social position in society, replete with the poverty, ostracism, and perceived inferiority that comes with it.
The fact of the matter is that the measure of the value of human life should not be, need not be, and hasn’t always been, commensurate with one’s ability to participate fully in specifically capitalist, i.e., exploitative and grueling, conditions of social labor (i.e., the total societal production, exchange, and distribution of goods and services).
What if the purpose of life was not to be deemed sufficiently “valuable” to an employer — or to pursue profit for profit’s sake, but merely the pursuit of happiness, love, meaningful social interaction, and creativity, based upon a society in which each person was able to contribute to the total quantity of socially-necessary labor (i.e., the total work necessary to enable society to function and equitably prosper) according to no other consideration than their unique abilities and creativity?
All humans are capable of loving and being loved; of interacting with other humans and their environment in unique, special, and intrinsically valuable ways. And that is the point of human existence. Not having a profit-margin that outpaces a competitor; or a GDP that outpaces a rival nation. These latter things are artifices imposed upon us by capitalist-driven market forces and divisions. They are not natural, and certainly not necessary.
At present, the human species has developed the wealth, technology, and productive capacity to provide for all; to reduce the labor burden placed on each, and enable the participation of all in the procurement of our social necessities. To allow for the free development of all humans as an end in itself; to allow for the flourishing and integration of all humans in greater and more harmonious intercourse regardless of the unlimited mental and physical differences which obtain between us.
When just the US alone spends nearly $2 billion A DAY maintaining its military machinery; when the 400 richest individual Americans have more combined wealth ($2 trillion) than the bottom half of the entire population combined, and more than the entire GDP of 80% of the nations on this planet; when we can find the means to pay the average CEO of a large U.S. corporation a wage of $7,000 per hour;— when we look at all these things it is clear that — if apportioned equitably — we more than have the resources and the ability to provide for all human beings and enable all human beings to live as free and full members of society.
In such a context, the notion that a disabled child or adult is a “burden” on the rest of the human population is not only barbaric and bigoted, it is anachronistic. It is a notion which continues to corrupt our species for no other reason than that the form of socio-economic organization (yes, capitalism) which comports with — and gives rise to — such prejudices, lingers on as the hegemonic system under which human affairs are organized.
It is high past time that such a system — and all of the unnecessary, barbaric, and backward ideas which it fosters — be consigned to historical bygone, once and for all.