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Who’s in, who’s out? What’s real, normal or even desirable?

I’ve been drafting this post for over a month, it has been through so many editions as it could easily relate to so many struggles or news items. It is also a viewpoint quite far from the mainstream. And may well prove highly controversial. I’m not at all anti-science. I am fascinated by all that we are learning about our universe and the way it works.  All of which, I believe, shows us more intricately God’s ways of working. I am very concerned, however, about how we decide who or what is ‘normal’ and who or what is ‘aberrant’ in our society. It is taking us a very long time to recognise the fulness of humanity. We have come some way in recognising that the colour of our skin does not make us different species; we are on the road with the recognition that men and women are equally human, capable of thought, self determination and reflecting the image of God; we are beginning to recognise that love is a gift of God in whatever form and that abuse of this can exist in all manner of partnerships…

Last month, in the midst of political rhetoric so very reminiscent of the early National Socialist Party in Germany, this article, on an entirely different topic, came to my attention. It looks positive, scientific, a break-through but it makes me deeply  uneasy.

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Pregnant women with elevated levels of certain immune molecules in their blood are at increased risk of having a child with both autism and intellectual disability, according to a new study.

The supposition underlying this research and the tone of the article is that there is a perfectible human “norm” to which we should aspire and that science can help us weed out the aberrations.  A belief which finds its logical conclusion in the Eugenics, famously practised by the Nazis but sadly theorised by American minds.  (See Edwin Blacks: America, War against the Weak or Steve Silberman, Neurotribes, Chapter 3.)

As the ideas of Eugenics were welcomed warmly in Germany, a reduction of the burden on society of paying for the upkeep of the disabled was sought. In 1920, Ewald Meltzer, surveyed the fathers and male guardians of children in his care at the “Katherpnehof State Home for Non-Educable Feebleminded Children in Saxony” asking 3 variations of the question: Would you give your consent in every circumstance to a painless shortening of your child’s life, after an expert had determined him incurably imbecilic? (Neurotribes, Chapter 3, Section IV) 

As a parent of a child who in the 1920’s and 30’s would have been described as incurably imbecilic, despite the intelligence and humour I recognise in him, I feel quite sick even reading the question. Sadly, as this month’s killings in Japan have exposed, this kind of thinking is suppressed by the mores of society but does not disappear completely. At root is the basic human tendency to shape our identity by defining us and them. We are like this…, they aren’t. We can do this…., they can’t. We are the humans, created in God’s image, they are somehow less than, we must make decisions for them and about them.

In Vienna at the same time as Meltzer was asking his deeply disturbing question, Hans Asperger and the Heilpedagogich team were working with an entirely different model. Their approach assumed that every human being could flourish. In their clinic a “highly personal approach [was taken with the patients]… even the standards of “normal conduct on the ward seemed surprisingly open-ended. The criterion for classifying a behaviour as normal or abnormal was the challenges it created for the individual child, not whether it strayed from an idealised template of psychological health.’ Fundamentally there appears to be no special interest in the differences between normal and abnormal’, Michals wrote, ‘as it is felt that theoretically this is unclear and practically it is of no great importance.'” (Neurotribes, Chapter 3, Section I). All that mattered was whether a behaviour helped or hindered the flourishing of the individual.

What kind of world would we live in if we accepted that all life is wonderfully created and precious in the sight of God. That no life is worthless,  a mistake or a burden to wider humanity. That each life is a gift which will draw particular communities of people together in enabling its flourishing. It’s the kind of world I’ve witnessed emerging in L’Arche and Camphill communities, in the midst of special needs schools and at Couthie House, where my one of my sons is now resident. What would science be discovering if research and investment budgets were directed towards enabling people to live the fullest possible life rather than preventing “abnormalities”.

We have begun to recognise that people with physical differences can have amazingly full lives and can sometimes outperform those with typically functioning human bodies. We recognise the amazing contributions of Stephen Hawking to the field of Quantum Physics. We could miss so much joy, so much delight, so many achievements, so many chances to be humbled, to be drawn into communities of compassion because we’re too busy trying to make everybody the same.

I don’t believe we are, or were ever meant to be,
but that we are called to love one another in all our differences.

 

 

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