We Latter Day Eugenicists

We Latter Day Eugenicists

            Surely it has been an open secret that the US supreme court is contriving a means by which to overturn the 1973 abortion ruling known as ‘Roe versus Wade’. Perhaps, with a sense of both legacy and posterity, they will attempt to do so on the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark case. The ‘leaked’ missal that purportedly reveals news to this regard can be taken as both political theater but also as a signal that the court’s neo-conservative leaning justices will only wait so long before acting. At once a signal, value-neutral in itself, will become a welcome sign for that sector of American society which desires a ‘return’ to a kind of real-time Gilead, as well as an unsurprising signpost for the observer who desires to chart the course of culture-driven politics during a period of global reactionary movement.

            Yet the conflict concerning the definition of what constitutes a human life is not, at least at first, a political discourse. In my view, such a topic is existential and also perhaps ethical, before it is political, simply because humanity is first a living organism conscious of its own existence. This is the basis upon which any ‘political animal’ can evolve and to which any logic of subsequent political language can obtain. Even so, the boundary between what is merely organic life and self-conscious human existence is mobile and notoriously difficult to agree upon. In that, biology becomes politics and in rapid fashion. The question that can be asked of this social conversation, a cultural conflict, a political hot-potato is ‘what drives the fascination with defining distinctly human life?’ and only thence ‘what is the motive behind the sense that abortion is itself an interesting issue?’.

            Certainly the definition of what is human has altered, often radically, across the epochs. For social contract societies, to be human was to be this people, this group, this community, and no other. As the scope and complexity of human social organization accrued to itself a basic scale and social hierarchy, gradations of humanity became commonplace. Some hierarchies were so gray-scaled as to have hundreds of minute distinctions – several from colonial Mesoamerica included over three hundred ‘versions’ of humanity, ranging from ‘pure-indigenous-rural-savage’ to ‘pure-Madrid-born-aristocrat’ – and even in our more enlightened days, we often imagine that due to variance in both behavior and belief, this or that one of us ‘descends’ or ‘ascends’ the exiguous ladder of self-creation. We have neither entirely lost the sense that our enemy is less human than we, nor that my neighbor must exhibit the same kind of sensibility as myself in order to remain fully human in my eyes.

            So the concern for defining what constitutes a human life is, in part, a concern for self-definition. Who am I, as a human being? What does my humanity mean? Not only to me but to others as well. Knowing that we as individuals are altered by the course of life in that our existence changes our self-definition – ideally, we would become ‘more’ humane, if not technically ‘more human’, as we mature – we also must consider the problem of how to adapt to these changing definitions. At length, we must also confront the denial of existence, that which is not life at all, human or otherwise, and we belatedly realize that of whatever human life consists, it cannot surpass its own fragile boundary. The inability of human life to experience and thus come to a patent understanding of its own completion in death, suggests that we are self-conscious of ensuring that the beginning of such a life be well-defined and vouchsafed against a premature lack of definition and thus lack of humanity, simply because we are aware that this same lack will eventually overtake us.

            Seen in this way, abortion becomes an active expression of that which cannot be lived. It is the unlived agency of premature burial. It is active because I have chosen to end a potentially human life before it can take on its own ability to self-define that life which is its own without yet being its ownmost, and it is unlived because the object of my action is unable to experience the distinction between life and death, having not been able to undertake its own thrown project. This seems poignant but it also can become maudlin if we dwell overlong on the sentiment that each of us has a ‘right’ to life. No, life is a privilege that we give one another, and that on a daily basis. My defensive driving, my disinterest in firearms, my lack of inebriation, my self-care – doing yoga instead of viewing pornography, perhaps – confers the privilege of ongoing life upon both myself and others. Life as a human being is both a task and a gift due to its historical character and the fact that our kind of existence is aware of its equivocal history. Yet neither task nor gift originate in some other existence, let alone essence. Their pressing tandem represents the very character of the human condition and is not the hallmark of divinity within history. Abortion is a deferring of the privilege of one life in order to redefine the privilege of another.

            This may at first appear radical. Yet considering that our very social existence, our general quality of life and the way in which we desire to live – consuming at our leisure, feeling that we have a right to bear and raise ‘our own’ children, allotting vast resources to defending what is ‘ours’ against all comers and so on – comes to mean that the lesser other is herself aborted. Perhaps this takes place in the womb itself, but more often it is reflected in relative mortality and life expectation tables worldwide. A rising tide is said to float all boats, but the boats themselves have not been equal since the first social hierarchies emerged. We live aboard the super-yachts of the seven seas. And with this contrast comes the rationalization that the lesser other really is worth less, that ‘my’ children come first and others must look after themselves if they can. This contradicts the ethics of all religious world systems since the advent of Buddhism, as well as those of the Enlightenment. Paul Ricoeur summed it best: ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’.

            So abortion as a premature ending of the privilege of human life must itself be redefined before any other discussion regarding its ethics takes place. We must take this moment to examine how the way we define our own humanity places the distant lesser other at some risk, or yet replaces them with impalpable versions of ourselves, to be counted upon to help defend the front lines against those who would make us lesser. This is not a ‘war of all against all’, but rather a conflict about the question concerning whose life is worth more and whose less. And however many fetuses are ‘saved’ or no, it is by the post-partum practice of geopolitical abortion that we will be ultimately judged as having attained a better humanity or as remaining the parochial and incompetent, halting humans of our primordial infancy. Indeed, the very concern surrounding the origins of human life in the present may be understood as a misplaced nostalgia for the birth of our species. To make this the center of any definition of human life in the present day is to utterly mistake the character of how we live in that selfsame present. To do so by a political calculation is to knowingly commit to a premature grave the vast other who redeems our self-serving humanity with its lifeblood, drained in infancy, aborted in the back-alley of our base consciousness that seeks to recognize and realize only that which is closest, the closed closet of my overly self-conscious will to death.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics, and social theory, as well as more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Past Lives I have Loved and Lost, part two: the possibility of a transcendental memory.

Back in 1996, Carl Sagan made brief reference to then more rarely encountered cases of ‘past life memory’. Over the past quarter-century more than 2500 such cases have appeared as documented, first, in para-psychology journals and more recently in mainstream ones. Finally, commercial press has taken note of them and counselling psychologists have advised parents of children apparently exhibiting such behaviors to more or less ignore them, as they always seem to pass away with age. Sagan suggested at the time that such cases ‘might be worth a closer look’, though he doubted both their ultimate veracity and verifiability.

Given the epistemic structure of consciousness that Sagan shared with many persons who live in our own historical epoch, it would be difficult to accept at face value the idea that such a serial experience as multiple existences could be historically accurate or biographically real. But such an idea is of course an ancient one, and one not at all foreign to many of the world’s belief systems. Indeed, as we are with many things, it is we, as scientific-minded moderns, who are in the minority to this regard. From reincarnative world systems to social contract cosmologies, the idea of multiple lives is common-place and unworthy of much comment. The vast majority of human experience as an evolutionary consciousness has simply accepted the sense that one lives, dies, and returns to live again as a matter of course.

It is equally transparent that today we tend to view these beliefs as rationalizations against a fundamental mortality and finiteness that we observe in the world-as-it-is. Yet we are being asked, in reference to these other vantage points, if there is yet not a difference between finiteness and finitude, a difference between the structure of perception and the nature of consciousness. Parts of modern philosophy suggest that there is a difference, without reference to the idea of past lives or any other such possibility. The death which is mine own, which cannot be shared, and towards which I run headlong, is a horizon that is neither public nor finite in any objective sense. It cannot be identified simply because the precise timing of our personal deaths cannot be known in advance. In this, our death is a radically ‘subjective’ event. It cannot be said to be an ‘experience’ in any mundane sense of the term. Indeed, it is also commonplace for the philosopher to state that ‘I cannot experience my own death, only that of others’. Furthermore, no matter how many passings to which I have myself been witness, this does not alleviate from me the burden of having to face down my own death, nor does it exempt me from the problem of the Other itself. No matter how many others die, not only must I still myself die but there remains yet more others to remind me that the otherness of the Other itself lives on.

Perhaps this is one of the experiential sources of the idea of past lives. A person dies, perhaps even a loved on, an intimate, but most of the time, these persons are recalled to memory by the living-on of other persons. It is not that the dead are summarily ‘replaced’. Freud, in a poignant letter to Binswanger from 1929, points out that in fact we never make substitutions of this sort, and in not doing so, this is in fact the manner in which we remember the beloved dead. More common than even this is the facticity of resemblance. We often tell ourselves that we know many people, but fewer characters, as individual persons who are different from one another nevertheless exhibit many of the same traits, especially if they hail from a similar cultural background. Although the old ‘culture and personality’ school of mid-20th century anthropological psychology has fallen out of favour, there remains something of this in our casual bigotries towards ‘the others’. As telling as this is, it is also sage to note that we stereotype ourselves for the sake of convenience as well, not wishing to disassemble our own society for fear of worse to come.

And I think that this is the more essential reason that lurks behind our general unwillingness to examine the phenomena of childhood past life memory. To begin to take apart the sense of selfhood that animates our current life journey – I am one thing, in one time and place, in the world as it is known at present etc. – is tantamount to placing the entire notion of existence at a parallax. It raises the kinds of questions that might betray us to bitterness, resentment, and perhaps even ressentiment: Why these few persons and not others? Do only a select and insignificant number of persons get to ‘live again’? If I have one at all, is it possible that my soul is new and not old? What does that mean, if anything? How could old souls reanimate? Is it a random process of regeneration? Is it a fifth elemental force of organismic evolution, so far overlooked? Why do such ‘memories’, if that is what they are, fade or are superseded over time? If such souls are old, would not their accumulated wisdom wish to express itself? Or is anything we do in this life patently predicted by what we actually have already done, outside of our current ken, in past lives that all of us have once lived?

This last question is the one that is truly offensive to any modern person who shares as sacred the idea that we are free beings, and that our will alone is what should determine our destinies. So not only is the nature of existence called into question by these growing numbers of cases but more radically, so is our conception of human freedom, itself a very recent invention and, judging by world politics, also a very fragile one.

Although ‘old souls’ and ‘past lives’ appear to us as at best romantic reveries – and I use both as plot devices in my Kristen-Seraphim saga – there is yet no plausible current-life experiential explanation for the memory content exhibited by these children. It is also difficult to imagine a scientific manner of further investigating them other than what has already been done to confirm the accuracy of the memories in question. Could we imagine travelling back in time and confronting the previous ‘host’ in order to interrogate about a future life of which they would presumably have no knowledge? The entire data set confounds not only experiential life but also rational discourse as we have developed it over the past four centuries. From the point of view of the work I do, such cases serve to underscore the human ability to step back from our lives as lived and examine their serial selfhood as it is in a singular life. For we already know we do not remain the ‘same’ people throughout the life course. This would be an unmitigated disaster, and the prolonging of adolescence into one’s thirties in some regions today is testament to this. Beyond this, we are placed squarely in the imagination which, being also uniquely human, commits us to the wonder of all things both present and perhaps also not quite past.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty five books in ethics, aesthetics, religion and education and more recently a ten volume adventure saga. He was professor of the human sciences for over twenty years.