Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nora Calhoun: Learning from Bodies

A Silent Calling
First Things
August 2014

The baby in my arms lacks the majority of his brain. He was born just fifteen minutes before this moment, and he is likely to die before another fifteen minutes pass. He has taken no first breath and will give no first cry. He cannot see. He cannot hear. He does not feel the warm weight of my hand as it rests on his chest and belly. I quietly weep and pray as the last gift of oxygen his mother’s body gave him dwindles and his rosy newborn glow fades to gray. His soul gently slips out of his body, and his life ends.

Ability is not what makes death significant. At birth this baby had capacities below that of a healthy fetus at ten weeks. Holding his body, living and then dead, proves to me that it doesn’t matter how early the human heart beats, how early it is possible to feel pain, or when the senses develop. No ability or strength confers human status—not being viable or sentient or undamaged or wanted. Being of human descent is enough; you cannot earn or forfeit your humanity. If this baby’s death does not matter, no death matters.

I have not always seen this so clearly. A gut repugnance and horror of abortion, which I felt from the time I first heard of it as a nine-year-old, kept me from ever being fully pro-choice. But even after my conversion to Christianity at eighteen, I didn’t want to express full opposition to the opinions of almost everyone I knew, my family, teachers, and friends. I wanted to avoid the taboo of “judgmentalism,” widely imputed to those who oppose abortion, and to maintain credibility among the feminist friends I cherished... the rest image
As the body and mind deteriorate, the dying are not less themselves. Dementia steals the faculties for expressing the self—language, memory, personality—but the self remains, albeit largely inaccessible to others. The experience of actually being with the demented and dying is one of watching someone move farther and farther away, out of earshot and eventually out of sight. It’s wrong to think, “Because I cannot access something, it does not exist.” Being with someone who is near death undermines such nonsense.


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