Human Exceptionalism

Leslie Burke’s Partial Victory

I have now read the Leslie Burke decision. Rather than being a loss, as depicted in much media, it was really a substantial victory–albeit one that continues to leave out people with profound cognitive impairments. Here is how the current issue of the Weekly Standard has described it:

“The English Patient’s Day in Court

Two months ago in these pages (“The English Patient,” May 30), Wesley J. Smith wrote about the plight of Leslie Burke, a 45-year-old Englishman with a progressive neurological disorder who was suing Britain’s National Health Service, lest they euthanize him by refusing to provide a feeding tube when he is no longer able to swallow.

Though Burke technically lost his appeal last week, he still won what his lawyer correctly characterized as “a significant practical victory for Mr. Burke and others in his situation.” While Burke can’t be guaranteed he’ll continue to receive artificial nutrition and hydration should he lapse into a persistent vegetative state, neither will a doctor be able to hasten his death against Burke’s wishes based upon some “futilitarian” calculation that a severely disabled life is not worth living.

The Burke decision is not ideal, but it does seem to have drawn an important ethical line in the sand. In this increasingly utilitarian age, that’s no small achievement.”

That’s about right. But the Burke decision does demonstrate that the law in the West, under the tutelage of bioethicists, is slowly accepting “personhood theory,” which, in essence, is a two-tiered system for judging human worth. Those with cognitive and communicative capacity enjoy what are commonly called human rights. Those lacking sufficient cognitive capacities or perhaps, those who cannot communicate, are denigrated as non persons (although the law has not yet used that term). As I have described many times in print, many bioethicists believe that human non persons not only have no right to live, but can be used as natural resources, e.g., in medical experiments or organ harvesting.