The Choice of Life

There’s an eight year old boy in my house who can’t speak in full sentences. He’s a beautiful child but something’s a little off with him. We have cameras in our home, special alarms and  locks on our doors because he likes to wander off without a firm understanding of time or the environment around him. He wears headphones to block out the sound because it bothers him and he needs a one-on-one aid to help him get through the day at school in his special education class. He’s my son and he’s autistic. Not mildly. Not the way that makes him quirky or awkward or a mild discipline problem in school. He’s autistic in the way that it’s likely he will never live independently and will require care for basic needs his whole life.

Before I left my unit in Iraq, where I was when I found out he was diagnosed, I let the officers that reported to me know that I was leaving for a few weeks and why. One of them, a kid lieutenant in a distant outpost sent me an email I’ve thought about almost every day since. He was a million miles away from anything normal, in a war zone, but he was compelled to tell me something about his older sister. He told me that she was severely mentally handicapped. And that though there have no doubt been troubles and hardship, his life and the life of his family have been truly enriched by their experience with her.

It was a simple, beautiful, iron truth message.

Today, nearly six years later, my life is more defined by my membership in the special needs community than by any other aspect. My profession, my faith, my marriage, nothing dictates more what I can, can’t, must or will have to do in any circumstance than the fact that I have a special needs child. Those of us on this journey who have made it through of sound mind and body have gotten there by clinging desperately to one key thought; the thought that young lieutenant gave me.

My life is a richer and fuller experience as a result of loving and caring for my special needs child.

It’s not an easy thing to embrace. You have to say it before you believe it. You have to believe it long before you see it. Which is why so many of us find our way to that belief through the comfort or discovery of our faith. But once you get there, it’s a powerful enlightenment. And if I could snap my fingers and make my son “normal”, I would.  But I wouldn’t change the impact this journey has had on me. It has given me a sense of humility, service and respect for human life in any form or function it takes. It is a sense that I did not always have and one I personally could not have without my experience.

It is a personal belief of mine.

In the Spring of 1760, William Small, a Scottish born academic, taught as the professor of natural philosophy at the College of William and Mary in the English colony of Virginia. Small was a product of the period of enlightenment. He taught the sentiments that would eventually be expressed in Immanual Kant’s 1784 essay on the Origins of Enlightenment.  Kant wrote:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.

Sitting in his classroom that spring, listening to the Socratic method of teaching Small introduced to the college, was 17 year old Thomas Jefferson. Years later, Jefferson would mention the profound impact Small’s teaching had on him.

“Dr. Small was … me as a father. To his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies while at College I am indebted for everything.”

To be the focus of Jefferson’s attention at such a formative age is to be the fulcrum lifting man’s thought on government from absolute, to enlightened humanist. You can draw a straight line from those teachings of enlightenment and personal freedom of thought to the heart of the notion of liberty and personal freedom that lit the flame of revolution in the colonies 16 years later. It is the foundational belief of liberty.

Personal choice.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, his two terms as president and the fact that four of the next five presidents, save John Quincy Adams, were considered Jeffersonian disciples  show that no man and no philosophy of thought has had more impact on the creation of our national identity than Thomas Jefferson and the concept of personal enlightenment and choice.  We are a nation built on the principal of personal choice and personal belief.

Personal belief.

If you have a strong point of view on the pro-life, pro-choice discussion, you owe it to yourself and others who may one day be effected by how you exercise your democratic duty to read the majority opinion of the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Roe vs. Wade.  It’s a few dozen pages with a reasonable amount legal jargon to get through before you get to the meat of it. It will take you less than an hour. You will find that the argument is grounded in conservative interpretation of the 9th Amendment and is bolstered by the 14th Amendment notion of equal protection of all persons under the law. It also accounts for the notion of human life before birth by establishing a limit on late term abortions.

It is balanced and logical. I agree with every single part of it with the exception of one. And it’s the most material part.  It’s the implied notion that human life begins in the third trimester of pregnancy. It’s a belief I don’t share. That’s not because anyone else has convinced me not to.  No political ideology or campaigning could compel me to come to that conclusion. I’ve come to this personal belief because of the journey I have walked with my family in the loving community of others who’s children were the outcomes of decisions not to terminate pregnancies. Who’s children with Down Syndrome are higher functioning than my son, despite the fact that 92% of parents who receive a Down Syndrome diagnosis in the womb, chose to terminate. I spend my life amongst parents whose children represent a burden that no one is capable, without faith and community of bearing.

Yet we have.

And in doing so I have anchored my life to the belief that all human life has value. And the thought that anyone’s expression of their point of view would move me off that belief is wrong if not insulting.  This is one of my core personal beliefs. William Small would tell me that my enlightenment would depend on my ability to maintain that personal belief without permission of others. Thomas Jefferson would tell me that my country was built on the notion that I am allowed to do so.

So What?

What should my government do with the emotion and conviction that I feel for the value of human life? You may find my answer at odds with my tone. I expect my government to do nothing.

I am grounded in my belief by experiences that no one could change. But most Americans do not share my belief. Only 44% of Americans consider themselves pro-life in a 2015 poll conducted by Gallup. And though my own personal conviction will not allow me to agree with the present interpretation of the Constitution as it pertains to abortion, I believe that first and foremost, we are a nation of people, but a government of laws.

As a result, the people actually have the power to change our reality by constitutional amendment or by revisiting the 1971 ruling through the judiciary. Both things in the present environment are highly unlikely. They may always be. But until they’re not, the words of enlightenment that informed our forefather’s vision of my country, “Have courage to use your own understanding” will guide me. Actions to the contrary were not their intent.

Our laws are brought about by the process of political actions that change the minds of the American people. And this is one instance where no minds are changing. So perhaps this debate needs to move on and stop defining so much of what side we get to take for so many other important things.