On numerous occasions, Pope Francis has criticized the “throwaway culture” of the developed world. He is not speaking from a strictly environmental perspective — encouraging people to reduce, reuse, and recycle. As we see in his Jan. 13, 2014, remarks to diplomats assigned to the Holy See, he is talking about a culture that diminishes the dignity of human persons and discards them like refuse:
“Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as ‘unnecessary’. For example, it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day; children being used as soldiers, abused and killed in armed conflicts; and children being bought and sold in that terrible form of modern slavery which is human trafficking, which is a crime against humanity.”
These words issued a significant challenge to the diplomats who represent countries like Belgium, that now permits children to be euthanized, and the United States, where abortion is permitted for any reason and at any time during pregnancy. One can only hope that the words of Pope Francis pricked the collective consciences of these diplomats and planted the seeds of conversion.
It is unfortunate that China was not represented among the diplomats addressed by Pope Francis. The Holy See and China have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1951. Yet China desperately needs to hear this message since its state policies fully embrace the ideology of disposable human beings, and bear the evil fruit with forced abortions, sterilizations, infanticide, and human trafficking.
Beginning in the 1970s, China set up a population planning commission to limit couples to having only one child. Those who have more than their allotted one child are sanctioned with large monetary penalties, seizures of their property, and loss of employment. Population control monitors force women to have abortions and sterilize women without their consent in order to regulate population growth. Though infanticide is not sanctioned by the government policy, it is a commonplace occurrence. Female infants are most often killed because of the cultural preference for sons. According to a 2010 United States State Department report on human rights in China, “Female infanticide, sex-selective abortions, and the abandonment and neglect of baby girls remained problems due to the traditional preference for sons and the coercive birth limitation policy.”
These policies have imbued the Chinese culture with a view of children as commodities. Therefore, it is not surprising that China has a serious problem with human trafficking, especially of children. In December of 2013, obstetrician Zhang Shuxia was arrested for stealing babies from the hospital where she worked and selling them to human traffickers. She was convicted and sentenced to death, but her execution was suspended. She now faces life in prison. Some say this prosecution is more for show than for substance. Wu Xinghu, whose own newborn was kidnapped and sold to traffickers five years ago, claims that hospital cooperation with human traffickers is common and, “Zhang Shuxia was a scapegoat when the case became too big to be covered up.”
What cannot be ignored in this case is the method by which Zhang Shuxia gained possession of these children. She did not sneak them out of the hospital under the cover of darkness. She lied to parents and told them their child had a serious illness or a serious congenital defect. The parents then willingly surrendered the child to her so that she could dispose of them properly. After all, they would not want to waste their one-child allotment on a defective child. This in no way is meant to place the blame for the trafficking of children on parents. But only in the context of a throw-away culture, where children are treated like commercial goods to be obtained or prohibited for the benefit of the state, could the idea of giving up your sick newborn and never seeing her again sound the least bit reasonable.
China is now preparing to take another significant step in the commodification of children. The Beijing government has granted $1.5 billion to the Chinese biotechnology firm, BGI, to develop a method of selecting embryos based on their projected intelligence. BGI claims that intelligence is primarily inherited. By sequencing the genomes of those with above average math skills, they believe they can isolate the genetic patterns that correlate with intelligence. Their plan is to offer this to parents so that they can select the smartest embryo. While the morally objectionable practice of testing embryos prior to implantation is not new, it is most often used to detect genetic illnesses and discard these embryos. Using genetic information for positive selection is a new direction for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and is equally morally problematic.
The head of this research project, Bowen Zhao, wrote, “Imagine what a couple might pay to ensure that they get the best out of 10 or 50 possible offspring, optimizing over their choice of heritable attributes…There are going to be countries that say this is part of our national health-care service and everyone is doing it. And eventually it would become unstoppable, because the countries that initially outlawed it would have to come around. How could they not?”
Is this burgeoning throwaway culture really unstoppable? Is China really the harbinger of a future world where human beings are universally considered disposable? What a terribly frightening prophesy. For this reason, Pope Francis could not stay silent. He boldly declared to the assembled Vatican diplomats that there must be a new focus on the dignity and value of every human person. He calls not only government officials but also for individual citizens of every nation to push back against a culture that only values human lives for their perceived utility. With the same fervor of those trying to save the baby seals, or the old growth forests, or the clean air, Pope Francis calls each of us to safeguard the lives and dignity of every human person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.