On the composting of thee and me

George Weigel

In Herman Wouk’s novel, War and Remembrance, Warren Henry shocks his Bible-reading father, the novel’s hero, by claiming that human beings are “microbes on a grain of dust…and when it’s over we’re just dead meat.” The Washington state legislature has now topped the cynical young Warren Henry by declaring that we’re useful meat, as in potential compost, such that one can legally choose to be composted after death, then used for fertilizer.

The case for composting thee and me is put in reassuring ecological terms. “There are significant environmental problems with burying…bodies,” according to state senator Jamie Pedersen, author of the human composting bill. Katrina Spade, the founder of “Recompose” (the company promoting human composting) described the process by which her firm does its grubby business as “the same process happening on the forest floor as leaf litter, chipmunks, and tree branches decompose and turn into topsoil.” Lynn Carpenter-Boggs, a Washington State University researcher who tried Ms. Spade’s process on six cadavers, told the Washington Post that “the material we had, at the end, was really lovely; I’d be happy to have it in my yard.”

There, now: Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Anyone paying attention to the churnings of American politics knows that the coastal strip of the Pacific Northwest, between Eugene, Oregon, and the northern suburbs of Seattle, is an asylum of political correctness, fueled by what a cultural anthropologist might call substitute religions. What was already the most unchurched part of the country when I lived there from 1975 to 1984 has experimented, over the past four decades, with various ultramundane religiosities — from socialism to radical feminism to gender theory to the most esoteric forms of environmentalism — often layering one mania on top of another. With human composting, this madcap exercise has now been turned inside out, demonstrating the ancient truth that the worship of false gods — in this case, Gaia, or the Earth — is a sure prescription for lethal incongruity.

In the biblical view of things, men and women, created in God’s image and likeness, have a God-given dignity that implies a responsibility to care for God’s creation, the Earth. Exercising that responsibility is a good thing here-and-now; it’s also an act of generosity toward future generations, who should inherit the Earth as a garden to cultivate, not a garbage dump to manage. But if men and women are, in the final analysis, compost — “a cubic yard of soil,” as Ms. Spade told the Post — why should we possess a unique dignity? Why should we bear any special responsibility to treat the Earth and other living creatures well? If we’re just compost-waiting-to-happen, why should we treat nature with respect?

If human beings have no special dignity within creation, then we have no special responsibility for creation. By declaring us proto-fertilizer, the human composters implicitly deny our innate and distinctive spiritual qualities — our ability to reason and to choose, to love, to sacrifice, to act altruistically and to rise above self-indulgence and violence. Logically, then, don’t the human composters undercut their own case for the care of the Earth and its creatures? Radical environmentalism in the form of human composting leads to an ecological nihilism antithetical to the moral case for “sustainability.”

Turning each other into compost also vitiates the ancient human instinct to create special places for the dead, where loved ones may be visited and their memory honored. To gut that instinct by composting relatives and friends for use in Lynn Carpenter-Boggs’s yard suggests that the bonds of love, friendship, and community that exist in life really aren’t really significant: if we’re just fertilizer, why should we be valued in life and cherished in death?

It’s long been obvious that certain forms of radical environmentalism are an ersatz religion, with an ersatz sacred text (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), ersatz sacraments (those multiple recycling bins), an ersatz Satan (Big Oil), an ersatz theology of the Kingdom (the aforementioned “sustainability”), and an ersatz moral theology (using plastic straws being the latest example of an eco-mortal sin). It was only a matter of time before this ersatz religion’s false anthropology and cosmology — its denial of the unique status of human beings in a natural order that’s created, not accidental — would lead to the grotesque. With human composting, gussied up as a matter of ecological responsibility, the grotesque has most assuredly arrived.

COMING UP: Truth-telling and Big Abortion  

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

For over a half-century, what styles itself the “pro-choice” movement has thrived because of its extraordinary ability to mask what it’s really about — the willful taking of innocent human lives in abortion — through various rhetorical deceptions.

Planned Parenthood clinicians ask frightened and often ignorant young women, “Would you like us to restore your period?” Legislators in thrall to Big Abortion dollars vie to keep sidewalk counselors away from abortuaries, in order to maintain the pretense that what goes on inside those chop-shops involves no more than unwanted “tissue.” The governor of New York celebrates the passage of a bill that would legally permit abortions up to the moment of birth because this is all a matter of “women’s reproductive health.” The governor of Virginia babbles about letting children who survive abortions die, thinking himself humane because he insists that the victims will be kept comfortable. Last month, a Georgia state senator decried legal protection for unborn children who display “what some call a heartbeat.”

George Orwell, call your office.

Forty years of pro-life argumentation have dented the armor of euphemism surrounding this slaughter of the innocents, which, while still appallingly high, is now at its lowest rate in decades. Thoughtful pro-life veterans will acknowledge, however, that what made a considerable difference to our cause was the invention of the sonogram: the technological marvel which proves that a picture is more powerful than a thousand lies about blobs of tissue. Now comes a hit motion picture, Unplanned, which takes the war against euphemism in the abortion debate to another level.

Unplanned tells the story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director and onetime Planned Parenthood employee-of-the-year, who became a pro-life activist after being called from her safe, euphemism-ridden director’s office to assist in a “procedure.” Watching what was indisputably a human creature trying desperately to avoid the instruments of impending intrauterine murder, Abby Johnson saw the truth of what abortion does, as what she described as a “perfect baby” was sucked out of the womb. She then had the honesty, and courage, to acknowledge what she had learned, leave her remunerative Planned Parenthood job, and try to teach others the truth that had seized he imagination.

That effort to witness to the truth continues in Unplanned, which reminds me of Pope St. Paul VI’s comment that modern men and women learn better from witnesses than from teachers; and if self-conscious moderns listen to teachers, it’s because they’re first witnesses. Abby Johnson, just such a witnessing teacher, is beautifully portrayed in the film by Ashley Bratcher — who also deserves credit for putting her own career at risk, given the assault that’s been mounted on Unplanned by the “pro-choice” Hollywood commentariat in the mainstream media, and by attempts to censor positive comments about Unplanned on social media.

Thus far, the campaign against Unplanned hasn’t worked. The film has been an expected box office success, despite efforts to black out advertising for, or coverage of, its first weeks on the silver screen. And we may hope that the campaign against Unplanned will eventually boomerang, as it becomes ever more clear that what Big Abortion, its ideological allies, and its political facilitators fear most of all is the truth — the truth that strips away the rhetorical façade behind which the campaign for “liberalized” abortion laws has been conducted since the late 1960s.

In his informal memoir, At Ease, Dwight D. Eisenhower lamented the loss in World War II of millions of “lives that might have been creatively lived,” and noted that the memory of that slaughter “scars the mind of the modern world.” It cannot be doubted that the tens of millions of lives lost to the abortion license in America since Roe v. Wade — lives that might have been creatively lived — scars the national conscience, whatever the euphemisms that put band-aids over the scars. There are also the scars born by women who have chosen abortion; their healing, and effective service to women in crisis pregnancies, must always be the complement to argument and witness in pro-life activism.

And then there are the irresponsible men. Hollywood’s rating system labeled Unplanned “R,” presumably because of its devastating first scene, where Abby Johnson meets the truth about abortion. That scene, and indeed the whole film, should be watched most carefully by men, who have benefited for far too long from Big Abortion and its wicked language games.