July 29, 2001
On the side of rail cars carrying Jews to certain death in concentration camps, Nazi soldiers wrote in chalk the number of human beings inside each car, followed by the German word “stücke,” which means “pieces” or “inanimate objects.” This served to dehumanize the Jews and make the entire exercise seem more like hauling lumps of coal to a steam plant rather than genocide.Richard Weaver warned us fifty years ago that the corruption of a people begins with the corruption of language. In our consideration of life and death subjects such as euthanasia, abortion and the destruction of human embryos for research, we should be especially alert to the power of words and choose them carefully. If life is precious, as our politicians feel compelled to say whenever an issue involving life and death is discussed, it must mean life in the particular — not in the abstract. Too often, our lawmakers and judges, lost in abstractions, have treated some lives as less deserving than others or even undeserving of any life at all. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a 1927 opinion upholding the validity of a Virginia statute authorizing involuntary sterilization of “mental defectives” that “three generations of idiots is enough.” By labeling those who would be sterilized as “mental defectives,” he made his judgment easier to accept. Earlier this month, a French court ruled that any physician who fails to advise a pregnant woman that her unborn child has a “defect” can be sued by the woman after giving birth to any unworthy baby. This ruling will prompt French physicians, who now face heightened malpractice exposure, to urge their patients to abort unborn children perceived to have the slightest “defect.” Words matter even more in the case of human embryos slated for destruction. This is so whether the destruction is for stem cell research or because we no longer perceive any need for them. Only the hardest sociopath fails to cringe at the thought of creating human embryos for the singular purpose of destroying them for use in research. Why? If a human embryo is nothing more than a “stück” — a piece of matter — what bothers our consciences? The fate of human embryos presents an ethical test for us that we tend to shrink from. Polls indicate a widespread desire to find a compromise. Most of us want the issue to go away. The sooner the train leaves for Auschwitz, the sooner we can forget about the “stücke.” Some hard decisions just aren’t reducible to compromise. Decisions involving life and death shouldn’t be subjected to the usual balancing that politicians favor. As President Bush emerged from his meeting last week with Pope John Paul II, he spoke of the need to balance the considerations of life against the promise of future medical research in deciding whether the federal government will fund research involving the destruction of human embryos. This isn’t about balancing. Government already engages in or authorizes too much cost-benefit analysis in deciding who should live, especially in questions involving euthanasia. Destroying a human embryo is unacceptable whether the purpose is research or simply to terminate what some consider a pointless existence. Politicians that justify destruction for research because an embryo is likely to be destroyed anyway display the very callousness Nazi soldiers developed as they wrote “stücke” on those rail cars or, worse, the callousness of German physicians who experimented on Jews in concentration camps because they were going to die anyway. Mr. McSweeney practices law in the City of Richmond where he was born in 1943. In January 2009, he convened a meeting of more than 200 Virginians, which led to the formation of Restore the Founders’ Vision, a non-profit civic education initiative. He has four adult children. He resides with his wife, Wendy, in Powhatan County, Virginia.