Baby Lessons

The new mother sits, her days-old infant at her breast. He suckles silently, tiny eyes closed. Thomas Wilcox Volz: unique, beautiful, inspiring and wondrous.

"He's six pounds fifteen ounces", his father says proudly. One week old, he'd gained back all but one ounce of his birth weight.

I had forgotten the lessons of a newborn, ours being 25 years ago: At birth, the baby loses weight until able to digest its mother's milk.

I watch mother and child. And obvious truth, obscured by daily living in the modern world, suddenly is clear:

The infant is helpless. His very life depends on his mother's milk and his parents' care.

And the parents? Helpless, too, without the unseen, unspoken web of life support all around - the automobile to get to the store; the gas to make the car run, the food in the store, brought by trains and trucks; the electricity keeping the house warm and cool and the lights and blood pressure monitors operational at the hospital where she'd given birth; the surgery room where the Caesarian had been performed; the factory that made the surgeon's tools, the university where she'd been trained... And behind each and every one of these, uncounted human beings, living and working in perpetual, complex and essential cooperation -- all in turn dependent on a healthy natural world.

It's been that way for all human time. At the dawn of our species, some 200,000 years ago, we lived in groups of 20 or 30 human souls. There was no illusion of independence: To survive -- to generate heat in intense cold, to ward off predators, to secure food for the group, for the mother, for the new baby -- required the work, cooperation and help of all. And the penalty for misbehavior? Ejection from the group. The individual, rugged or otherwise, was doomed to death. All understood: Survival requires a village; it takes the group to keep the baby alive.

We have lost sight of that elemental truth. Our technological wizardry, the combined effect of tens of thousands of labor-saving tools, has done wonderful things, shielding us from the harshest elements of nature, curing disease, replacing hard labor, extending human life. And yet, those very things blind us: We no longer see in daily life the truth of our ceaseless, foundational interdependence.

Prone to fantasy, part of our minds and hearts wants to believe we are "free" -- free of others' needs, free of responsibility, free of the duty we owe the members of the human community on which we depend to survive. Despite eons of genetic selection for the desire and ability to cooperate, part of our human psyche yearns for "independence".

That denial of real-world reciprocity and interdependence has real-world results:

I can convince myself it moral, even Godly, to force a woman to bear a child, and then deny my responsibility -- and that of my community -- to assure that mother and infant have medical care and food.

I can define "human rights" as restricted to speech and voting, and deny they include today's needs for survival -- a job, health care, nutrition, housing, education, clean water and air.

I can claim the right to do business, and deny the responsibility to do it ways that pay a living wage, benefit my community, and preserve the health of the natural world.

I can follow libertarian fountainhead Ayn Rand in self-absorbed fantasy: "Each man must live as an end in himself. I am challenging the moral code of altruism... I consider it evil."

Combined, multiplied and transformed into public policy, these delusions have impact:

In Canada, where medical care is deemed a human right, 5 infants die for every 1,000 live births.

In Cuba, where the Gross Domestic Product, per capita, is one-ninth ours, 4.8 per thousand die.

And the infant mortality rate in our United States, where health care is a for-profit "industry": 7 per 1,000 -- 40 percent higher.

Why this stark disparity? After all, in America we spend $8,500 per person per year on health care, almost twice what Canadians do.

In Canada and Cuba all pregnant mothers get comprehensive pre and post-natal care -- an assigned doctor, midwife or nurse, regular health screenings, counseling, nutritional supplements when needed, early intervention with problem pregnancies, ongoing monitoring of mother and child. In the US, those services are given only to those who can pay -- from their pockets, or private or public insurance. Mothers and infants without those financial resources do without.

That difference -- that indifference -- causes 8,000 unnecessary deaths of American infants each year. Eight thousand babies, each one precisely as unique, beautiful, inspiring, and wondrous as Thomas Wilcox Volz.