A number of years ago, I attended a program on the campus of an elite university. The speaker was a non-religious public intellectual who was, as far as I could tell (and as best as I can remember) not opposed to abortion on fundamental moral principle, but who was nevertheless concerned about what abortion was doing to the character of our society. She especially noted that, these days, there are not as many people with Down Syndrome around–not because we have found a way to treat it, but because parents can now find out if the child in the womb has it, and when they do, many of them choose to abort the baby. It bothered this speaker that so many parents would consider these children unfit to live.
I especially remember this public lecture because of the question and answer period. During it, a student got up and defended the decision of these parents to abort these children, on the grounds that such children are, after all, a “burden” to the parents. It was striking to me then, and it still is now, that a young person–especially an enlightened one, one attending one of the best universities in the country, one who had had the benefit of many advantages in life–would defend the decision in so matter of fact way in terms of nothing but the self-interest of the parents. Without intending to do so, he was himself providing evidence in support of the speaker’s concern that abortion was degrading the character of our culture by making it less open to the weak and vulnerable.
I thought of this scene again after a number of years because I was reading Sigrid Unset’s memoir, Happy Times in Norway. Undset is famous as the Catholic convert and Nobel Prize winner in literature who authored great historical novels like Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. Happy Times in Norway is an altogether different kind of book, smaller in every way, but charming. It is simply about rural family life in Norway in the 1930s–a happy time that she wanted to record in order to contrast it with the unhappy times that came with the Nazi occupation. She wrote the book in exile in America in 1942.
Undset had three children, two boys and a girl. The daughter, Tulla, evidently suffered from some mental disability. Undset never suggests that she or anybody else in the family regarded Tulla as a burden. On the contrary, she suggests that they all loved her and that the family, in taking care of her, actually received something of great value from her. The book ends with a brief account of what happened after the happy times ended, after the German invasion and occupation. Tulla had died the year before, and Undset says it was in a way a mercy that it had turned out this way, since the simple things that Tulla could enjoy–parades, sled rides in the winter, visits to the mountains in the summer–were taken away by the occupation. Said Undset of Tulla:
She was spared the sufferings inflicted on her by a nation who has deemed children like her–not able to achieve anything in this world except teaching us love and tenderness, and giving love and tenderness in return–unfit to live.
The young man at the elite university who spoke of such people as a burden was certainly not a Nazi. The Nazis were not interested in material comfort and social status but in military glory and conquest. That is what led them to want to get rid of people–even those among their own people–who were incompatible with their dreams of a master race. We are not like that. But, as Pope John Paul II reminds us in Evangelium Vitae, we in the developed nations of the West often do view such people as burdens because they require care and attention and therefore detract from our ability to pursue comfort and status. In both cases, however, stronger human beings are eliminating weaker ones because the weak ones are incompatible with the plans of the strong ones.