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The Case of Phillip Becker

George F. Will
First appeared in Newsweek Magazine, April 14, 1980, p. 112.
  Copyright © George F. Will. Reprinted with permission.
One year permission granted by Seth Meehan on behalf of George F. Will.

     The Supreme Court's refusal to hear California's appeal means Phillip Becker's parents have successfully asserted a right to block lifesaving surgery. So Phillip, 13, will die prematurely, probably slowly and painfully, perhaps suddenly, drowning in his blood from bleeding into his lungs. Surely, the reason his parents have promoted, and the law has allowed, this is: he is retarded.
     He has Down's syndrome (Mongolism), a chromosomal defect that involves varying degrees of retardation and physical abnormalities. He has a common heart defect, correctable by surgery. Uncorrected, it probably will kill him by 30. The pattern is progressive debilitation until reduced to a torturous bed-chair existence, with headaches, chest pains and fainting spells during which the sufferer turns a terrifying blue-black. Already Phillip suffers attacks of weakness and bluishness. His heart must work three times harder than a normal heart. Blood is pumped into his lungs under dangerously high pressure, damaging the lungs' thin vessels. Already he may have passed the threshold of dangerous harm; soon his condition may be inoperable, his decline irreversible.
     California, which would have paid, called the surgery a "necessity of life." The Beckers responded with three inharmonious arguments. They said the operation was too risky. There are special risks in surgery with Down's children, but the risk of death in Phillip's case was well within conscionable range, even when not weighed against surgery because of fear it would succeed. They said they feared he would survive them and, bereft of their attention, might someday receive care so poor that life would not be worth living.
     Although they assert a right to make it probable that Phillip will predecease them, they never considered allowing him to live at home. They say he "is an integral part of our family," but only claim to visit him six times a year. The home for handicapped children says the visits are even fewer, that "Phillip doesn't know who his parents are," and that he calls many men "Dad." For years his parents have fought a partial and temporary severance of their autonomy over a child they never even brought home from the hospital and rarely see. What might have been accomplished it the energy devoted to abbreviating Phillip's future had been devoted to providing for it?
     However that may be, the Beckers' argument against surgery on the ground that it might mean Phillip might someday lead a life not worth living was superseded by their third argument: that his life is inherently not worth living. They solicited a letter from a pediatrician who said that Phillip leads "a life that I consider devoid of those qualities which give it human dignity." He said Phillip's "simple and innocent nature" makes him a "natural victim" of people bent on "taking his money." Phillip might not "fit into modern suburban society."
     A man who talks like that should not announce that someone else is deficient in dignity. I yield to no one in my reverence for pediatricians when the subject is tonsils and the like, but is pediatric medicine definitive on the subject of human worth? I will not speculate about the worth of those who presume to deprecate Phillip's worth, or about the quality of life in a society that, on "quality of life" grounds, truncates a life like Phillip's. But this is tiresome: just when society is beginning to acknowledge an obligation to nurture the significant fulfillment of even the limited potentialities of retarded citizens, the Becker case works to cast those citizens into legal limbo as less than persons with a full right of life.
     My aim is not to demonstrate the demonstrable: that respect for parental sovereignty has here been carried to absurd, not to mention lethal, lengths, unthinkable were Phillip not retarded. (There even has been court-ordered treatment, against parents' wishes, of deformities that threatened not the lives but only the psychological well-being of normal children.) My aim is to stress this: the idea that the value of human life varies with intelligence is an idea at war with our civilization's core belief in the intrinsic and equal value of lives.
     Down's newborns have been allowed to starve to death in hospitals by parents who refused consent for surgery to correct intestinal blockages. In "The Making of a Surgeon," William Nolan recalls a surgeon saying to a pediatrician that he wouldn't worry if a particular patient died during upcoming surgery. The pediatrician replied, "Oh, now I get it. You're doing a Mongoloid." The Beckers testified that one reason they never considered allowing Phillip to live with them is that they did not want him to be a "burden" to his brothers. One reason they blocked the operation was fear that his two brothers might have to be their brother's keeper.
     It is often said that someone "suffers from" Down's syndrome. But Down's people lead happy lives when parents and other friends allow their own lives to be enriched by loving and being loved by them. The suffering Phillip faces is premeditated and preventable, so let there be no mincing euphemisms about "passive euthanasia." Euthanasia means "pleasant death," a release from suffering. Phillip's life is pleasant.
     People ignorant about retardation, or eager to believe the worst, often produce or seize upon excessively pessimistic prognoses about retarded children's potentialities. Those prognoses become self-fulfilling, even fatal, when used to justify neglect. Those who know Phillip best consider him gentle and promising. His teacher says that he is "working at a very high level" for any retarded child. He assembles Legos and operates a recorder. If allowed to live, he could work in a sheltered workshop and live in a supervised group home with other retarded adults. He is in a Boy Scout troop. He makes his bed, feeds the cat and does other chores where he lives. His taste in TV shows runs to "Six Million Dollar Man."
     The Down's child I know best is 7. He is learning to read but prefers "Happy Days," the Washington Bullets and the Baltimore Orioles. These impeccable tastes help explain why neighborhood children treat him as what he, like Phillip, is: a boy.
Revised: November 27, 2001.