On Thursday, the world was informed that Vincent Lambert had died.
He died of starvation and dehydration, after a French court sided with his wife and doctors and decided that this was the right choice. A car accident had left Lambert paralyzed and severely disabled more than 10 years ago. Despite the heartrending pleas of his parents, who insisted that his essential human dignity and worth were not defined or vitiated by his condition, the court agreed that forced dehydration was best.
Lambert’s nephew, Francois Lambert, called it “rationality gaining the upper hand.” “This was a human being who was suffering and the various theatrical gestures did not mean much,” he said, implicitly affirming that Vincent’s life also did not mean much.
Those who hold that every human life has intrinsic and immutable dignity were left speechless at Vincent’s court-sanctioned death. It is clear that the value of a human life, at least to much of the enlightened medical and judicial establishment, is now a matter of case-by-case evaluation.
In April, Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris contrasted the worth of Lambert’s life with that of serial F1 racing champion Michael Schumacher, who suffered similarly grave brain injuries after a skiing accident in 2013. No one, Aupetit observed, was petitioning a court to let the sporting legend slowly starve to death in his own best interests. On the contrary, the day after Lambert’s death was announced, Schumacher’s closest friend, Jean Todt, told the media that “his family is taking good care of him, and he continues to fight.”
“His family is fighting just as much,” Todt added. Fortunately his family only has to fight against the lasting damage of the former racer’s injuries, not a team of doctors or a judge. Indeed, the idea that a doctor or court might seek to end the life of the European sporting icon is unthinkable—as well it should be. But hard on the heels of Lambert’s death, it is hard not to conclude that this has more to do with Schumacher’s fame and championships than his innate human worth.
Friday also saw the publication of the decisions of the English Court of Protection and the Court of Appeals in the case of a woman with “moderate learning disabilities,” known as AB. Last month, AB’s doctors went to court for permission to perform a late-term abortion on the woman, who was twenty-two weeks pregnant. Their reasoning, affirmed by Justice Nathalie Lieven, was that it was in AB’s “best interests” to have an abortion—despite her acknowledged protestations, and those of her mother (herself a midwife) and her social worker.
Whatever she and her family might think, the judge ruled that she had “to operate in [AB’s] best interests, not on society's views of termination.” She found that it was in a woman’s best interests to have her child surgically murdered against her will, as this would be less traumatic than the child being adopted. The Court of Appeals overturned the ruling three days later, after doctors had already begun preparing AB for the abortion. Lady Justice King wrote that Lieven had made “no reference” to the beliefs and values—specifically the religious beliefs and cultural values—which informed AB’s resistance and would have informed her own legal consent had she been able to give it. Both AB and her mother are devout Catholics. Lieven is a former advocate for the abortion industry.
Justice, especially in a liberal democracy, is meant to be blind, impartially protecting the rights of all. But the inconvenient truth is that the scales of justice tip in the hands of those who hold them. Judges, especially those in cases like Lambert’s and AB’s, rule on the value of human life, with life or death consequences. That some lives, born or unborn, famous or not, could be deemed less worthy than others before the law would have been philosophically and culturally repugnant for much of human history; the deadly legal shadows around “personhood” are cast by the ruins of our once common principles.
In our post-Enlightenment age of total philosophical autonomy, in which our own Supreme Court famously declared that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” we each decide for ourselves the value of a life. In the cases of Lambert, AB, and many others, judges decided for them—not according to an objective set of truths or moral norms, but according to their own best lights, however barbaric we may find the results.
It is, perhaps, unfair to fault our legal systems for failing to fill the moral vacuum left by the ejection of a common faith and respect for the Natural Law. This loss was unforeseeable when they were instituted. But we must acknowledge frankly that when all our morality is relative, so too is our justice.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and DC bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.