Americans United for Life published “Studies in Law and Medicine” in the 1970s and 1980s, spotlighting issues pertaining to the human right to life across the bioethics spectrum. As Americans United for Life celebrates our 50th anniversary, we are making these issues available for the first time since their print publication.

How Much Should a Child Cost? by James Burtchaell, C.S.C.

In the world of bioethics, it is not uncommon to encounter extreme and even barbaric worldviews. Joseph Fletcher and Paul Johnson are two such characters who have dispersed their inhumane thinking through academic literature in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Fletcher’s position on defective newborns involved a scale or “checklist” of qualities that make one a human. He argues that some disabilities disqualify a newborn from being human. Paul Johnson responds to Fletcher in his article “Selective Non-treatment of Defective Newborns: An Ethical Analysis,” published in 1980, which claims that the questions at hand is not whether the newborn is human, but rather what his or her value to society might be. This is a response to Johnson’s claim, which escalates further the savagery of Fletcher’s writing.

To reckon the value of a given infant’s life, Johnson explains, we must estimate the quality, realized or potential, that this life possesses. A child’s value is related to the degree to which he or she can be expected to attain those higher functions which are most characteristic of human personhood and which distinguish humans from lower species of animal life. Since the purpose of human life is not merely biological existence, not simply to metabolize, we must calculate it as valuable to the extent that is attains higher goods, by being actively and fruitfully inter-personal. The problem faced by parents, physicians, public servants and the ethicists who advise them is that the resources and attention needed for the survival of infants can vary greatly. Some seriously defective or damaged or diseased children need therapeutic care well beyond the means of most families, thus bringing a private need into the jurisdiction of public policy.

Are we ethically obliged to nurture every infant, whatever the cost, whatever the benefit? What I am asking is that the issue be remanded for further and different consideration. One would require that when parents, physicians, and statesmen look into a crib to ask themselves whether it be right to let death claim a blighted child, they not consider what measure of potential the infant has to become truly human. For their purposes, that fellow human of theirs is already as invaluably valuable as he or she ever will be or would be, and is far more dependent on them  than are most children for the protection of its person and its life.