I first visited death row in Huntsville, Texas back in December of 1999. The purpose of that visit was to interview John Paul Penry – a man who had raped a woman and then stabbed her thus also committing murder in the first degree. His death sentence would not have been in any way controversial had he not spent several years in a state home for the mentally retarded when he was a boy back in the 1960s. During that stay in a state home, Penry scored in the mid-fifties on a standardized IQ test.
I considered an interview with Penry to be a unique opportunity to better teach about his Supreme Court case, which I had been covering in my criminology classes at UNC-Wilmington for at least six years prior to meeting him. Facts gleaned from the interview helped us grapple with a very important legal and moral question: Is it morally permissible to execute a guilty murderer despite the fact that he suffers from a mental handicap such as mental retardation?
Reasonable people will disagree about how this question is to be answered. Some will say that severe mental handicaps should produce full exoneration while mild mental handicaps should only mitigate the severity of punishment. Others will say it makes no difference, adding that if a man is capable of doing the crime, he should be capable of doing the time. But imagine that I posed a related legal and moral question: Is it morally permissible to execute a completely innocent human being because he suffers from a mental handicap?
At this point, you are appalled that I would ever ask such a question – and rightfully so. But after pausing for a few moments you might see where I am going with this. We actually do it all the time in the context of human abortion. In fact, in many nations, being diagnosed with Down syndrome is a near certain death sentence. In Iceland, for example, the abortion rate comes close to 100% when an innocent unborn human is diagnosed with this genetic disorder, which manifests itself in delayed physical growth and moderate intellectual disability.
In the United States, the percentages are lower. Still, the vast majority of those diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. And there is simply no justification for such cruelty. Imagine that we killed every innocent human being who exhibited delayed physical growth or moderate intellectual disability. Millions of Americans who have already been born would be slaughtered using such calloused, not to mention subjective, criteria.
But would it be better, morally speaking, to kill such individuals in the womb? Of course it would not be better at all. The unborn humans who are diagnosed with Down syndrome are still human. And the philosophical justifications for killing them are always inhumane and threaten the dignity of both the unborn and the born.
So how do we fight the kind of callousness that produces the mass killing of innocent human beings for the “crime” of being diagnosed with Down syndrome?
A woman named Amy Wright has provided many with a powerful vehicle for seeing the value of those with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, or IDDs. Amy and her husband have four children. The two youngest, named Bitty and Beau, have Down syndrome. In 2016, Amy opened Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. The shop employs people with IDDs including several with Down syndrome. As a result of her work, Amy was named the CNN “Hero of the Year” in 2017. The positive publicity has helped her spread her message by opening shops in Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.
Opening Bitty and Beau’s was a humanitarian effort meant to enhance the individual lives of those with IDDs. But it was also meant to change societal perceptions of people with IDDs towards the end of fostering greater acceptance and inclusion.
For those who support aborting those diagnosed with IDDs, the experience of going to Bitty and Beau’s can create a healthy cognitive dissonance. It forces honest pro-choice advocates to re-examine their stance on abortion by forcing them to rethink the true source of human value and equality. Indeed, if human equality is to mean anything then the source of our value must be our basic human nature.
In other words, to be truly equal, humans must possess their value from the time they come to be simply by virtue of the kind of thing they are. Others cannot demand that they prove their worth by virtue of the kinds of things they can do. To be sure, we often underestimate the abilities of people with IDDs. But the larger point is that value of human beings is intrinsic. It is not limited to or otherwise defined by our functions or abilities.
Whenever I hear someone justify the war on innocent human beings who are diagnosed with an IDD in the womb, I urge them to go to Bitty and Beau’s. Then, I ask them a simple question: What is the difference between you and the person who served you that would justify sparing you and killing them in the womb?
I‘ve never heard a morally persuasive answer to the question.