"In fact, Ruth appeared less deformed. No longer a being to be pitied. I could no longer describe her as a skeletal adult foetus. She was a human being. Like me. Thinking back to those silent days in the dining room of the monastery, I believe that Ruth's daily silent presence forced me to see beyond the physical body."- Suchen Christine Lim Is a person's life worth less because of her dependency upon others for survival?
The Straits Times recently featured a short story written by Suchen Christine Lim, winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the S.E.A. Write Award, titled "The transforming power of Ruth" (28 December 2013). THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF RUTHIn the story, Lim tells of how she met a 36 year-old woman named Ruth at a two-week silent meditation retreat in the Benedictine Monastery in Snowmass, set in in a high valley surrounded by forests and snow-covered hills. Ruth is first introduced to us as "a dark-haired, severely deformed skeletal woman, the size of a nine-year-old", and "lying curled like a foetus on the large trestle table".
Lim was "still seething with anger and resentment" when she went on the meditation retreat, where she had to maintain silence at all times inside the buildings. She was desperate to leave her "heartbreak" - apparently what seems to have been a rocky marriage with her husband Lawrence - behind her.
The severity of the Ruth's deformity distressed Lim, who could not bear to look at her. However, one evening, Lim could not bear the silence any longer and went out to talk, though she quickly retreated to silence because of an abortion that she had at Lawrence's insistence of an unborn child who had grave genetic defects: That evening, some of us, unable to bear the silence any longer, went out to the garden to talk. A woman who had done the retreat before told us that Ruth was 36 years old, and she was deaf. I went back inside. I didn't want to listen any more. I didn't want to talk about this deformed adult-child. Lawrence had insisted on an abortion when we were told that the foetus inside my womb had grave genetic defects. He didn't want children, he said. I didn't want to think about Ruth. Yet, her existence could not be denied. Every day, she was among us, curled up on the trestle table as we ate our meals and had our coffee breaks in between the meditation sessions. Every lunch hour, we watched Helen, her mother, carry her like a baby into a private room to feed and change her diaper, and our hearts were filled with pity for Helen. At such moments, I felt Lawrence and I had done the right thing.However, she eventually changes her mind.
On the third morning, Lim notices Ruth's dark eyes following them as they moved about the dining room. Her eyes seemed to smile. Lim says "hello" to Ruth the next morning, whispers "Hi, I'm from Singapore" the day after. She gradually begins to make a point to stop by the trestle table like the others to say a few words to Ruth despite having been told that she was deaf.
The group begins to warm up to Ruth. Lim comes to appreciate Ruth's humanity, and her anger subsides: Over the next few days I noticed others in my group relating to Ruth with growing familiarity. Like me, they held her hand, patted her and laughed silently with her as though they were in conversation. On the ninth morning while I was whispering something to Ruth, I realised with a shock that I'd stopped seeing her as an ugly twisted human wreck. "Something has shifted inside me," I whispered to her. "I no longer want to plunge and twist a knife into my husband's heart. Cause him as much pain as he'd caused me. I'm still hurt, but I don't want revenge any more." By then, I felt that the twisted body on the trestle table did contain a spark of intelligent compassion. Each day I'd found myself stopping a little longer at the table. I could be talking to myself, yet when I looked into Ruth's dark eyes, they seemed to reflect understanding. In fact, Ruth appeared less deformed. No longer a being to be pitied. I could no longer describe her as a skeletal adult foetus. She was a human being. Like me.
At the end of her story, Lim explains that Ruth had taught her to see beyond the physical body:
Thinking back to those silent days in the dining room of the monastery, I believe that Ruth's daily silent presence forced me to see beyond the physical body. Daily, I saw how Helen carried her 36-year-old daughter like a baby into a private room to feed and change her diaper without fuss as though it was a normal thing to do. Helen's devotion made me see the nature of love with no strings attached. On the last day of the retreat, I plucked up courage to ask Helen about Ruth, and this is their story. Ruth came from a family of six. Helen was a cook in the monastery before she became our meditation leader. Her father was a carpenter. When the monks first invited Helen to join the monastery's meditation leadership team, she declined because she couldn't leave Ruth at home all day. The monks told her to bring Ruth to the monastery with her. Later, when the monks discovered that Ruth's presence had a positive effect on those who came for retreat, they made Ruth part of the meditation leadership team, and paid her a monthly stipend. The abbot of the monastery said that Ruth had lessons to teach the rest of us. Over the years, I'd wondered what lessons we had learnt from Ruth, a human being so utterly helpless and dependent on others like a baby, yet so transformative in her influence on others. Like a baby.
SINGAPORE'S OWN TRANSFORMATION
The transformation of Suchen Christine Lim's perspective of Ruth parallels to some extent Singapore's transformation in its attitude towards the disabled.
When then-Health Minister Chua Sian Chin moved the Abortion Bill in 1969, he in Parliament that "it would be an act of kindness or even a moral obligation to avoid the tragedy and the serious repercussions" by permitting the abortion of mentally or physically deformed children:
Let me now turn to the other conditions on which the termination of pregnancy may be authorised under clause 5 (2). Let me first deal with the eugenic considerations. There are several conditions which are known to carry a high risk of the birth of a mentally handicapped child or the birth of a deformed child normally termed a "monster" or the birth of a "mongol". Certain of these are due to inherited conditions. In others, the affliction might be due to an infection of the mother in the early stages of pregnancy. German measles in a pregnant woman especially in the very early months of pregnancy carries a high probability that the child will be born with some severe abnormalities. Certain drugs or X-ray examinations taken in early pregnancy are also known to cause such defects. The disastrous effects of the thalidomide drug is well known and are still fresh in our memory. In conditions where there is a likelihood of the birth of a mentally or physically deformed child, few can deny that it would be an act of kindness or even a moral obligation to avoid the tragedy and the serious repercussions to the parents, the child, and society alike by permitting abortion. It is also fully justified by a further reason that it is an acknowledged social evil to countenance the breeding of defectives in society. This consideration may be described as the eugenic reason for abortion, and the provision is embodied in clause 5 (2) (c) of the Bill. Chua dismissed religious and ethical objections as "highly theoretical and often emotional" and that they "ignore completely the realities of the modern world and its problems":
Of course, there will always be the few who will on religious and ethical grounds oppose permitting abortion even under these conditions. These minority groups in their opposition will no doubt advance their familiar arguments which are highly theoretical and often emotional, of divine creation and the sanctity of the fertilised ovum or the foetus which is quite different from a living person, (concepts which have sprung from the Middle Ages and beyond). To enter into such types of arguments for or against, to justify or oppose abortion is, to my mind, entirely futile and to ignore completely the realities of the modern world and its problems. I would just like to invite these groups to visit the Mental Defective Section of the Woodbridge Hospital to see for themselves the mental defectives or "mongols" whom we have to care for. Perhaps then they may begin to think in more rational terms and start to question the very purpose of the Divine creating such mental defectives, the nature of whose existence in this world is just to vegetate.
The attitude of the Singapore Government towards the disabled has changed drastically since 1969. In March this year, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development, Chan Chun Sing referred to the Enabling Masterplan of 2012, :
Our vision is for Singapore "to be an inclusive society where persons with disabilities are fully integrated, empowered to reach their potential, and become contributing members of our society". In July, the Singapore Government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 1 states the purpose of the Convention:
The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.The Government has since also started an initiative known as "The Purple Parade", a movement that "supports the inclusion and celebrates the abilities of people with special needs", coupled with campaign on and holding a carnival and concert at Hong Lim Park.
Such is a radical about-face.
CONCLUSION: A PRO-LIFE REFLECTION
Suchen Christine Lim initially had a negative attitude towards Ruth, the deformed 36 year-old woman. She recalls her own abortion, and thought that perhaps she and her husband had "done the right thing" in aborting her child who had grave genetic defects. By the end of the story, her attitude had changed because of her interaction with Ruth, whom she no longer described as a "skeletal adult foetus". Instead, she was recognised as a human being just like Lim herself.
Likewise, the Singapore Government has since changed its attitude towards the disabled. In 1969, the mentally or physically disabled were seen as "tragedies", and the Government thought that abortion should be permitted on eugenic grounds because breeding such "defectives" was a "social evil". In 2012, however, the Government did an about-face by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and championing the rights of people with special needs with its initiative, "The Purple Parade".
Both stories reflect very positive, life-affirming transformations.
Persons who suffer from disabilities are persons of equal worth and dignity and no less human than anyone else.
A human being's utter helplessness and dependency upon on others should move us to show love and compassion. Like Helen for Ruth. Like a mother for her baby.
What is remarkable in Suchen Christine Lim's story is how Ruth is in many ways a reflection of Lim's aborted child. She repeatedly refers to Ruth as a "foetus", like her aborted child. Both suffered from disability. Both were helpless and dependent.
Both stories tell of a remarkable journey towards recognising the humanity and intrinsic worth of persons with disabilities.
But both stories leave us with certain unanswered questions.
Foetuses - also known as unborn children - are similarly utterly helpless and dependent upon others, especially their mothers, for survival.
As we are left wondering whether Lim came to regret her abortion and be reconciled with Lawrence, we are also left wondering whether the Government will change is mind about the laws on abortion in Singapore and come to respect the intrinsic dignity and worth of every member of the human family.
Perhaps only time can tell.