What is the Value of a Life?

Read just about any news story and the question of the value of a life will come up. Should the government use its resources to feed people, valuing their existence? Or educate them? Or does life have only the value that others put on it, like a woman contemplating her pregnancy?

The movie Gattica explores this question in a fascinating manner. Set in the future, genetic engineering is the norm. Couples go through a rigorous process to ensure their offspring will have the proper genes for health, intelligence, beauty and success. These children are labeled “valid” for education, opportunities and hold a high place in society.

Children born the natural way are called “faith babies,” meaning their parents had them on faith. Vincent Freeman, the film’s hero, is one such person. He’s nearsighted, has a weak heart and the doctors project that he will die by the age of 30. His parents realized their mistake and underwent the genetic engineering for their second son, a son who was born perfect, a valid. Vincent would forever be an “invalid.”

But Vincent isn’t willing to accept his place in society, stuck in a menial job. He dreams of joining the mission to Saturn.

His chance comes when a friend is involved in tragic accident which leaves him paraplegic. Vincent uses Jerome’s DNA to assume his identity and trains for the space mission. He learns how to use Jerome’s skin samples, hair and urine to deceive the random testing.

But What’s Wrong with This Picture?

This film explores a world where faith babies are defiantly second class, less desirable as mates and given fewer opportunities.

The question arises, wouldn’t every parent want to ensure that their child was perfect and had the attributes of physical attractiveness, intelligence and athletic prowess to be able to do whatever he or she wanted in life?

The problem is the unintended consequences. The society portrayed in this film is completely devoid of happiness, vitality and fun.

What’s wrong with this society?

It Has Decided What Has Value

This society has determined once and for all which lives have value and which ones don’t. There is no room for deviation. The result is everyone is forced to live in a certain way, act in a certain way, and even spend their time in certain ways. All prescribed by what the society values.

There is no room for any deviation. Creativity, which would be trying something different or doing something in a different way, would be like admitting there are other forms of “valid” than the accepted ones.

There’s also room for celebrating the contributions of those who aren’t “valid.” They miss out on the sensitivity and kindness of a person with Down’s syndrome. They deprive themselves of the inspiration of a paraplegic who learns to run. They would have never enjoyed the music of an Andrea Bocelli or a Beethoven.

In short, they’ve taken on the role of the creator and the judge. They have assumed they know what’s best.

Over and over we see the limits of human wisdom. Communist central planning is a great example. The Soviet Union had chronic shortages of shoes. That is, if you happened to have normal sized feet. People with smaller or large feet never had a problem finding shoes. The reason is that the genius central planners who set production goals for shoes decreed that the same number of shoes would be produced in each size. No one bothered to find out what the demand for the different sizes actually was.

It Ignores the Human Spirit

At the end of the film, Jerome committed suicide. He couldn’t live in a world that valued perfection when he was no longer able to live up to the promise of his genetics.

Had he lived in a society that valued the human spirit, Jerome could have had a future. Instead, he was faced with the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the culture he lived in.

One of the most compelling lines in the film comes during an interaction between Vincent and his brother Anton. As boys, they would swim out into the ocean. They dared each other to swim further, competing to see who could swim out further. Every time, Vincent, the “invalid” with the weak heart, could swim farther then his brother, the perfect “valid.”

Toward the end of the film, Anton asked Vincent about this. “How could you beat me every time,” he asked. “I swam as far as I could.”

“No,” replied Vincent. “You swam as far as you and still know you could get back. I just swam as far as I could.”

Vincent’s spirit, his drive to better himself, gave him victory over the brother who relied on his genes.

The lesson, as I see it, is that we are more than the sum of our genes. They are just the starting point, the hand of cards we’ve been dealt.

In the eyes of humans, some hands are worth more than others. But in the eyes of our Creator, every hand has value.

There are many ways to play those cards. The choices we make, the paths we take, the effort we put into what we do, all make up who we are as a person. And what we contribute to our world.

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