That memory came back when I read the latest installment in the story of Marlise Munoz, a brain-dead woman whose body was artificially animated for eight weeks to sustain a pregnancy with virtually no possibility of survival. The use of artificial “life” support would normally be left to the discretion of the family, but in this case, the hospital misapplied a law that was probably unconstitutional in the first place which said that life-support cannot be withdrawn from a pregnant woman.[i] A Texas judge finally declared that the hospital’s actions violated Ms. Munoz’ expressed desire in life to not be kept on life-support and her family’s right to make that choice on her behalf.[ii]
The Munoz family described the hospital as seeming to be using Marlise in some kind of horrible science experiment.[iii] I don’t know whether there was any political or religious motive behind the hospital’s actions or shading their reading of the law, but I now have a whole new outlook on Victor Frankenstein and his patchwork zombie. When Frankenstein was written, even when I first read it some thirty years ago, it was scientifically impossible to animate dead flesh, and well-understood that it would never be possible. Suddenly, we have found that we can keep dead flesh in a semblance of life for months, at least, and we are not prepared for the ethical, moral, social or purely physical ramifications of that capability.
In light of the Munoz case, I find it interesting that you can’t swing a dead cat[iv] on Amazon these days without reading a zombie apocalypse novel. Looking just at the proliferation of zombie fiction, you might think we are growing increasingly obsessed with death, but the horror of the zombie isn’t that it is dead but that it appears to be alive: it’s death without the release, and it’s desecration of the dead—one of our strongest taboos. We revere the bodies of our dead, whether we mummify them, embalm and bury them to keep their bodies safe and perfectly preserved, or if we burn them to purify the flesh and release the spirit. Like me standing beside my grandmother’s inert body and stroking her shoulder, we have a need to see the body reverently cared for so that we can detach from the loved-one whose outward appearance lies before us.
How far have we sacralized[v] mere life that, like Victor Von Frankenstein, we can desecrate the dead in its name?
Mere life is not sacred. If it were, H.P. Lovecraft’s shoggoths would be the perfect life form. They are the pure distillation of life: living masses of protean flesh without form or purpose other than to devour and grow. But that kind of life—without form or purpose[vi]—is one of the recurring horrors in our fiction. If you are not familiar with H.P.L. you would still recognize a shoggoth. The creature from John Carpenter’s The Thing is a shoggoth directly out of Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness. The creature in Dean Koontz’ Phantoms appears to be a shoggoth, and if neither of those rings a bell, think of The Blob. Or a common slime mold. And although not properly a shoggoth, the undersea creature in Leviathan, the movie with Peter Weller, has many of the same formless, infinitely mutable qualities.
Humanity is sacrosanct[vii] because human beings think, feel, remember, imagine and regret. When you take a human life, you are ending something utterly unique that can never be replaced. You are erasing a lifetime of memories, thoughts, and feelings, and when a human being knows that death is approaching, a human being experiences regret for the future he has imagined. Mere life cannot.
If mere life is the perfect condition of innocence[viii], then individual human beings are its corrupted state. No reason, therefore, to regard a living, thinking, feeling person with respect, and having no regard for human beings, we need have no regard for their remains. Rendered meaningless by death and animated into an appearance of life, the now uncontaminated body returns to its original state of protean innocence. Meaningless. An incubator for another insensible life form that will never survive to be more than meaningless flesh while the misery of human beings like the Munoz family has no value.
And when we value mere life over humanity, our measure of the value of an individual ceases to be the quality of humanness. We value the individual’s mere life according to measures like money, power, celebrity, physical attractiveness, or obedience to arbitrary rules concerning private behavior that does no harm to any human being. If the human being does not matter, then the power to overcome and absorb mere life is everything.
I don’t suppose that the venerators of mere life are aware of their idolatry, but judging by their words and actions the underlying prejudice is such a fundamental part of their world-view that it seems to them depraved to care more for human beings than for mere life such that we might permit mere life[ix] to die because it will never be able to think, feel, remember, imagine, or regret.
Mere life makes moral and ethical choices simple. When human beings are irrelevant, nothing is lost by discarding them. The great mass of mere mindless life remains, and only one small, corrupted fragment is sloughed away from the glorious, seething bulk. It’s harder—much harder—when every decision has to be weighed in the balance of human beings. Can you defend yourself by shooting a harmless stranger who comes to your door begging for help? Can you allow abortion to be legal knowing that while a fetus (mere life?) can, in time, become a human, the woman, a human being, does not wish to be pregnant? Is her humanity of enough value to justify destroying mere life? Can you chase down and kill a young man who happened to walk past you at the wrong time because you assume he is a criminal? Can you execute a convicted man knowing that our justice system is human and thus so flawed that we frequently execute innocent men? Can you allow children to go hungry and uneducated because their parents lack the value imparted by money and power? Do you control the desire to kill and endure a greater degree of personal danger or fear because you recognize that even a potential murderer or rapist is a human being?
The advance of technology has put us in a position where we have to confront choices we have never faced before. Those choices are hard and painful. They require us to stretch beyond the recognition of mere life to experience the humanity of another person. Innocence is more than lack of consciousness, and humanity is more than a heartbeat. Life is more than Victor Frankenstein animating a corpse. This isn’t the last time we will face this question, and we need to have a better plan in place the next time we are tempted to tinker with the boundary between life and humanity.
[i] While this practice is not uncommon in cases of a woman in a coma or persistent vegetative state with all her organs functioning more-or-less normally, it is usually practiced when the fetus is near or past the point of viability, and there is a chance that it can survive. The family, with the advice of doctors, may decide to maintain the pregnancy as long as possible to give the fetus the best possible chance at survival when it leaves the womb. In this case, the motive is not to sustain mere life but rather the desire to preserve and embrace a human being.
[ii] For those who haven’t followed the story, the fetus was 14 weeks old at the time of the mother’s death, 22 weeks at the time a judge ordered the hospital to release the body from artificial animation. Ultrasound showed that the fetus was severely deformed, probably as a result of Ms. Munoz’ death and subsequent breakdown of her organs, and was not remotely viable.
[iii] Presumably to find out how long you can gestate a fetus inside a corpse.
[iv] According to Samuel Clemens, a popular nineteenth-century entertainment for small boys.
[v] Imbue with or treat as having a sacred character or quality. Like a golden calf. Or the money of the super-wealthy.
[vi] The shoggoths, according to H.P.L., were created as slaves—living machinery—but although they had rudimentary minds enough to obey commands, they had no purpose of their own, hence meaningless.
[vii] Sacred or inviolable—as opposed to sacralization which imposes a sacred character onto something not formerly regarded as sacred.
[viii] One of the primary arguments of radical conservatives is that a fetus is more valuable than the humanity of a woman because it is innocent whereas the woman is not—if only because she has engaged in sex. Thus capital punishment is acceptable because the “criminal” is not in a state of innocence. Even in the all-too-frequent cases where we have executed human beings wrongly convicted of crime, radical conservatives are not greatly concerned because the condemned are human beings and therefore, by definition, not innocent.
[ix] An animate corpse or a doomed fetus