A Modest Proposal: A civilization in need of enlightenment

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

In 1729, when Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country,” the confounded reaction to his political and socioeconomic satire suggested he had mined a hidden truth permeating the natural law: the inherent value and dignity of every human being.

Using reason and logic, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” encouraged poor Irish families to claw their way out of poverty through the commodities market, selling their children as food for the lords and ladies of Dublin.

Swift wrote with the precision and grace of a New York Times food critic: “A young healthy child well nursed is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled. And I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

Swift comes to mind because of recent events – and events that happened millennia ago.

It is enlightening that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a former pediatric neurologist, got into more hot water over his use of blackface (or his donning of KKK robes) at a medical school party in the 1980s than he did for his chilling suggestion – just a month ago when his sense of medical ethics and the imperatives of the Hippocratic oath to which he once swore should have been heightened and unassailable – that infants born alive despite an attempted abortion could be laid on the table to, you know, die.

A modest proposal.

“So in this particular example,” Northam said in a radio interview, “if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated, if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

The idea that a mother and her doctor could “decide” to leave a baby to die on a sterile table – when the mother’s “health” is off the table – is as morally repugnant as anything a civilized society could sanction.

And, for that, let’s take a look back at how far we have come as a civilized society.

In ancient Greece and Rome – elevated civilizations in the arts, letters and science – it was common practice for families to “expose” an unwanted child to the elements by placing him or her at a sanctioned spot for abandonment: the “columna lactaria” (milk column) or “spurci lacus” (filthy pool).

Abandoning an infant at one of these public places might increase his or her chances of survival if someone took pity on the baby and raised it, but in most cases, the infants either died or were raised as slaves.

In a reflection on “Child-Exposure in the Roman Empire,” W.V. Harris writes that girls were more likely to be “exposed” than boys because boys who grew up to be slaves had more value. Many of the exposed girls became either slaves or prostitutes.

“No one had anything to be proud of afterwards,” Harris writes. “Even among those who saved the lives of abandoned infants, most were interested in exploitation more than in rescue, and most of the rescued children inconspicuously joined the population of slaves.”

Even though contraception and abortion were practiced in ancient Greece and Rome, exposure was the preferred method to control the population.

“One of the reasons why Romans relied heavily on child-exposure to control population was that, unlike contraception or abortion, it permitted them to choose the sex of their children,” Harris says.

The major reasons for child-exposure were physical deformities, illegitimacy, perceived economic need and evil omens. Some children with physical handicaps were drowned or “promptly eliminated by the midwife.”

The economic motivation for child-exposure, Harris writes, was that for a family living at a subsistence level, “simply feeding another child would mean taking food from members of the family who were already hungry.” But even the rich exposed their children, not wanting to dilute their older children’s inheritance.

Under Roman law, the “paterfamilias” (the head of the family) “had the right to bring about the death of an infant under his power.” The Romans called it “potestas vitae necisque” (the power over life and death).

It is instructive to note that during all these times, Jews traditionally nurtured and cared for all of their children.

“Aristotle saw it as a distinctive characteristic of the Jews,” Harris writes. “The opposition of first-century Judaism to child-exposure was transmitted to the Christians. Presumably, this teaching had some effects on behavior within the limited circles that were receptive to Christian teaching, and exposing infants is not among the failings and deviations with which Christians reproached each other.”

In the year 374 – 40 years after the emperor Constantine’s death – Valentinian issued the following edict: “Let everyone give nourishment to his own progeny. If, however, anyone think of exposing it, he will be subject to the statutory punishment. But we leave no opportunity open to masters and patrons (to reclaim children), if a decision based on pity collect those whom they have exposed (as it were) to death: He will not be able to call his own a being whom he held in contempt when it was at the point of death.”

Nearly 1,650 years later, what have we learned?

Gov. Northam would leave a child on a table to die.

A modest proposal.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org

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