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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

No Human Being is a “Vegetable”



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The imbroglio over the Washington Redskins induced me to revisit an issue of fairness and equality over at First Things. In an age in which a football team’s name can cause profound offense, most people still castigate the weakest among us as mere plant matter.

The time has come to clean up our acts. From, “The V-Word Is as Bad as the N-Word:”

Using the word “vegetable” to describe people with a cognitive disability or impairment is profoundly dehumanizing. The victims of this characterization are as diverse as America; Members of the castigated class come from all races, ages, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and any other human identifier one can conjure. Indeed, any one of us could find ourselves entered among this disparaged group, and all of us have—or had—loved ones who could be so identified.

I give the odious example of Family Guy mocking the late Terri Schiavo as having “mashed potato brains” that are poured out on the floor. I note that had the show similarly jeered at a racial minority or the LGBT community, show creator Seth MacFarlane would be washing cars today. Instead, he happily remains A-list big-time Hollywood.

I point out that dehumanizing the cognitively disabled exposes them to neglect, abuse, and exploitation:

There is more at stake here than hurt feelings. Demeaning any human being as no more important than a rutabaga opens the door to profound abuse. Indeed, every day people with profound cognitive impairments are made to die slowly by dehydration by being denied tube-supplied food and water. There is even a lawsuit in Canada that seeks to force a nursing home to deny spoon-feeding to a late stage Alzheimer’s patient—even though she is voluntarily eating…

Not only that, if we come to see the cognitively devastated as merely the moral equivalent of plant matter, what’s to stop us from harvesting their organs as we reap corn or wheat? Indeed, advocacy to do just that is becoming ubiquitous in the world’s most influential medical and bioethics journals.

I conclude:

If we are to have a truly equal and moral society, if our health care system is to have any chance of caring properly for the least of those among us, to use a Biblical turn of phrase, we need to watch our mouths as a means of cleansing our hearts.

A good place to start would be to stop using the V-word to define any human being.

I know people resist this message. But human exceptionalism holds that if we are to have a truly equal society, it must apply to all of us, not just some. Onward.



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