Jeff Jacoby

An Addenbrooke's spokesman told the Daily Mail that the hospital used to dispose of fetal remains in dignity at the Cambridge City Crematorium. It decided to switch to its own main incinerator — the same one it uses to burn trash and recover energy — when the crematorium raised its prices. Hospital managers were facing budgetary pressures, and needed to be "careful with the use of limited resources."

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, why not? Not only did the hospital save £18.50 per cremation, it helped cut energy costs as well. It doesn't make any difference to the fetus how it's disposed of. Why should it make a difference to us?

The answer used to be self-evident: Human beings are more than mere flesh, more than just one organism among all other organisms. Death doesn't transform us into "clinical waste," suitable for recycling or fueling an industrial heating system. Human beings have moral agency; that is what elevates us above every other creature. It is why human rights are intrinsic and universal, it is why human life must be treated with dignity — and why human remains must be handled with dignity when we die. And yes, it's why even the remains of an unborn baby should be treated respectfully.

But we live a dehumanizing age. Our culture makes it easy to scoff at the quaint notion that in every human being is a spark of something divine. It requires a determined pushback not to grow jaded or callous, or to let human exceptionalism be reduced to little more than market value or a bundle of appetites. The renowned Princeton philosopher Peter Singer was asked a few years ago to identify a value today that will vanish within the next few decades. His answer: "The sanctity of life." He looked forward to the day when only a handful of eccentrics will "defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct." That, in Singer's view, will mark an advance. The same influential thinker argues that there is nothing inherently wrong with breeding children in order to harvest their organs, or with permitting disabled infants to be killed for up to a month after birth.

Anything can be rationalized, including the money-saving convenience of heating hospitals with dead fetuses. Our humaneness is rarely more than a thin veneer, and it takes less effort than most of us realize to peel it off, releasing the barbarism beneath.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for