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“Law & Order” and the value of suffering

Law & Order: Honey BBQ

Sad to say, but the show doesn’t really get it.

Law & Order: Honey BBQ

“Law & Order” is addictive. It’s like Nutella or movie theatre popcorn. Once you start, you just can’t stop.

There are three flavors of “Law & Order.” I call them “flavors” because of a joke my stepdad made once. I told him I was watching “Law & Order,” and he said, “Which one? Original, Honey BBQ, or Cool Ranch?”

“Law & Order: SVU” is my Honey BBQ. “SVU” stands for “Special Victims Unit.” According to the familiar voice that introduces the show, “sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives that investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad” blah blah blah. Anyway, there’s lots of rape.

“Law & Order” usually has a pro-choice slant. In fact, the two lead actors (Kathryn Erbe and Vincent D’Onofrio) from the Cool Ranch version of the show (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” the one nobody watches) did a commercial for Planned Parenthood recently. “SVU” is no exception. There is one main character – Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) – who is a “conservative Catholic,” but he is portrayed as angry, repressed, and conflicted. Naturally.

Still, I like the show, and I watch it occasionally. I’ve spent my fair share of lazy Saturdays watching “SVU” marathons. Who hasn’t? I enjoy Mariska Hargitay’s muscular yet elegant portrayal of Detective Olivia Benson. I admire Detective Stabler’s beefy vulnerability, his bewilderment at the injustice that surrounds him.

Today’s rerun was an episode from 2003 called “Mercy.” In it, a one-month-old baby is discovered dead in a cooler in the Hudson River. The medical examiner discovers that the baby had Tay-Sachs disease, a rare genetic disorder that is found in the offspring of Jewish parents. The investigation leads our heroes to the Browns, and it’s not long before the baby’s mother and pediatrician admit to conspiring to overdose the baby with antidepressant so that she could die a peaceful death.

The episode is very sympathetic to the mother. The actress does a terrific job of making you feel for the character. Who can’t imagine wanting to spare their child years of torment and a painful death? Tay-Sachs begins with seizures at about six months of age, and eventually brain function deteriorates to the point that the child becomes blind, unable to swallow, paralyzed, deaf. There is no treatment available. Palliative care is the only course of action – in other words, making the child as comfortable as possible until her inevitable death, usually before age five.

Everyone can understand wanting to spare your child that fate, and you almost begin to agree with the mother and the pediatrician when they repeatedly say they were only trying to save baby Sarah from unspeakable suffering.

So it makes you start wondering: what would happen if we could save all children from diseases like Tay-Sachs? What if we could test infants, find out if they were destined to suffer, and euthanize everyone before they could feel horrible pain? Imagine a world in which no one feels the misery, the pity, and the pain of seeing a suffering child. Imagine if healthy children never see other children suffer. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? And if not, why not?

Unfortunately, this is another example of how a dream of Utopia, of creating heaven on earth, can lead to terrible things.

Congenital analgesia is a very rare condition in which a child is born unable to feel pain. Parents often report the first sign something was odd about their child is that he or she didn’t cry immediately after birth. Affected children are strangely quiet as infants. Eventually, the parents take their child to the pediatrician when an injury that would cause a normal child to scream causes no reaction in their child.

Gabby was born with congenital analgesia. Her teeth were pulled when she was very young to keep her from biting herself repeatedly. After poking both her eyes out, she now wears goggles to avoid further eye injury. Click the picture to read more about her.

Parents whose children suffer from this disorder will tell you they would give anything if their child could feel pain. It may sound strange to want your child to get hurt, but it’s pain that teaches us to avoid things that cause it, and children who don’t feel it are prone to injuries, unable to know if they are hurt or sick because they don’t experience the symptoms. They might set their hand on a hot stove and leave it there, unaware that they are burning.

As children, they might stick something into their eye or ear or nose or skin to see what it does, not realizing they are hurting themselves. Also – and just as importantly – they may hurt others without realizing what they’re doing, because if a child has never felt pain, how can she understand what she is causing?

Suffering, unfortunately, is necessary. It is instructive. A lack of pain is very dangerous. And what is true for the individual is true for the culture.

No one wants his child to be the one who suffers from Tay-Sachs, leukemia, or other diseases that cause terrible suffering. No one wants her daughter to end up like Terri Schiavo, or her mother to linger for years with a terminal disease. No one wants to experience those things personally, either. But the unfortunate truth is, as human beings, suffering is necessary, on a personal and societal level. Just like our own pain teaches us not to hurt ourselves or others, the suffering of other people – even, and maybe especially, children – teaches us empathy.

Erasing all the bad from our lives would make it impossible for us to appreciate the good. Similarly, killing every child before it can suffer, while it seems to be an act of mercy, would actually lead to dangerous places. Euthanasia negates the value of suffering. It says that only the lives of healthy, normal people have value, and that’s not true. Whether you believe in God or the undeniable design in nature, suffering exists for a reason. If we were supposed to all live to an old age without pain, we would.

Mercy-killing robs the world of a life, and of all that one life can teach us. Who knows what impact one child with Tay-Sachs can have on the lives and souls of those who encounter her? We can all understand completely the desire of a child’s parents to save her from that suffering, but just like abortion is not the answer to a crisis pregnancy, mercy-killing is not the answer to a life in crisis.

Euthanasia is the ultimate in cynicism. It says “no” to the wisdom that tells us that good can come from bad. The mercy killer looks at a life and says it would be better if it were over; no good can come from this life. It usurps the power of God – or, if you prefer, nature – and decides to end an innocent life.

Nature can be cruel, but mercy-killing is crueler. As unfair as it seems, as miserable as it can make us, the truth is that human beings need to suffer and need to see suffering. Ironically, it’s this necessary suffering that makes us human enough to want to end the suffering of others – to feel empathy and sympathy and pity. But we have to be wise enough to know that desire to help others must be checked before it leads to the misguided act of euthanasia, no matter how pure our intentions.

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