As Christians, we have an obligation to examine all aspects of our lives in order to ensure that we honor God daily. However, not every issue of life falls into neat, easily-evaluated categories.
One such problem is that of cochlear implants.
In essence, a cochlear implant is a surgically-implanted device that doctors thread directly into the cochleas of deaf children/infants in hopes of restoring some auditory abilities. An external component collects the sound and communicates it to the internal portion. However, even the most ardent advocates for cochlear implants admit that it is a long, expensive process that does not make deaf children into hearing ones; the follow-up and rehabilitation are often time-consuming and require significant parental and educational assistance. Implantation surgery carries risks. As well, certain activities are prohibited (deep scuba diving, sports involving blows to the head, etc).
The Deaf community in the US (and many other countries) presents a rather forceful response: changing a deaf child into a hearing one via surgery harms the child and a culture. It stigmatizes the child (“you were broken till we fixed you”). Cochlear implant centers emphasize the use of oral/aural communication over sign language, thus striking at Deaf cultures by actively removing a member of the community. Implantation philosophies view deafness as a medical condition instead of a cultural one. Rehabilitation elevates one language (spoken English, for example) over another one (American Sign Language). Some Deaf leaders in the United States view the impact of cochlear implants large and harmful enough to substantiate claims of child abuse.
(Something that I really can’t put into this post is the degree to which sign language plays a part. As a deaf friend said after editing my post, “I think you may want to expand a bit on Deaf culture, what it is, how sign language is the absolute integral foundation of the culture, etc so that people might appreciate the erosion on Deaf culture by the increasingly common practice of putting CIs on kids.” It really isn’t possible to overstate the importance of sign language within the Deaf community and the deep emotional pain experienced when a child is removed from the language community via CI implantation.)
My wife and I view the issue from a variety of perspectives. Stacy has been deaf since birth. I was born with normal hearing, but a quirk of genetics has left me with hearing loss that began in early childhood and continues to worsen as I age. What’s more, Stacy has a degree (and almost a second) in deaf education. My background is in communication disorders, with a Master’s in audiology. If that were not enough, we have worked exclusively with Deaf communities in Gaza, the Czech Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, and other locations. We have personal, educational, and vocational points of view.
Cochlear implantation and related issues stir strong feelings, both in us and in the communities in which we live and work. Stacy and I do not completely agree on the details of the issue, though we eventually draw the same conclusions. In writing this, I’ve had to set aside as much emotion as I can. Stacy, in her proof-reading, called me out on the “unemotional and clinical” writing style I’ve used. My response: “It is deliberately clinical. I can’t get sucked into an emotional approach.” My statement was immediately followed was an emotion-filled moment of intense fellowship that is beyond the scope of this treatise.
Returning to our initial premise, it would seem that we have an obligation to ask whether or not cochlear implants (CI) have a Christian component.
Perhaps the initial step is to evaluate the appropriateness of altering a physical condition through surgery. As many Deaf friends have commented, “If God makes a child Deaf, we have no business altering His decisions.” Weak argument; if we feel comfortable with LASIK, cleft palate repairs, hip replacements, gastric bypass, pacemakers, and surgical remediation of any medical condition, then objecting to this surgical remediation is not something we can logically support. If people wish to object to cochlear implants – fine. However, if we’re doing so because it surgically alters something that has naturally occurred to the body, then we’ll need to eliminate all other surgeries that address naturally occurring conditions. Therefore, objections to the concept of surgical alteration cannot contribute to any sort of Christian prohibition against cochlear implants.
Since we’re already on the topic of divine design, we need to evaluate a sentiment that stems in part from something that came to me from Dr. Robert Hughes (a great Bible teacher whose scholarship impacts me even today): In considering the question of deafness, we need to keep in mind the more fundamental question of whether full hearing acuity is an aspect of the divinely-designed biological norm. This is an area of disagreement for my wife and I, and it generates considerable heat. She says that supporting “full hearing acuity” as part of God’s design for humanity would entail supporting whatever skin color Adam and Eve had as part of “normal,” too. Their eye color would then become “normal,” as would their handedness, hair color, etc. I see her point, but draw a line between genetic variations that would have existed even had Adam and Eve never sinned and normal body operations.
(Last time we talked about this, she was stuck her tongue out at me and began to stomp off. I, being more gracious, turned my back before she got very far in order to communicate that I wasn’t going to watch her walk off and in order to keep her from being able to sign a snarky response. Maturity for the win!)
If we reject the notion of hearing abilities being the gold standard for humanity, then we can leave our Deaf children without CIs and get on with using sign language. But -if we accept that normal hearing abilities are part of God’s divine design for humanity, we then must question whether we have an obligation to restore hearing to deaf children.
I would say that we do not have such an obligation. Restoring the world its pre-Fall condition is not for humanity to accomplish; Christ worked to re-establish the direct communion between humanity and God via the cross. Likewise, God will restore all creation to a perfect state when He chooses. Therefore, even if we accept that God’s original plan was for humanity to possess a certain amount of hearing, I do not think we can claim that CIs are an obligatory course of Christian action.
What of Jesus’ healing of the deaf man? I’ve already addressed this particular point here, but I’ll summarize: I do not think Jesus healed a deaf man so much as he restored the man to a position of participation in his local community. Since Deaf adults today can be more a part of a community than the first-century deaf man in Mark 7, any attempt to argue that Jesus’ miracle implies an obligation for us to remediate (“heal”) deafness would be misguided. As well, if Jesus’ healing of the Deaf man was to be some sort of norm or pattern of behavior for us, then why would God have claimed responsibility for the creation of the Deaf (Ex. 4) only to have His son reverse the pattern? No, Jesus’ actions were not intended as an example for us to emulate.
Biblically speaking, I cannot envision a true Christian aspect to the question of CIs. I do not see a valid claim of obligation to implant, nor of any sort of prohibition to the surgery. Neither do I find a biblical mandate that we place our respect for other cultures (Deaf culture, in this case) above our divinely-issued parental responsibility to raise our child “properly,” whatever that means.
There are, though, questions that parents have to be able to answer about their deaf child, concepts that they must consider if they are to be fair godly parents who have their children’s best interests at heart.
- What is the best communication method that will come closest to ensuring that my deaf child will be a full participant in family life? The question is not, “What would be easiest for me, or for the rest of the family?” This is actually one of the most fundamental issues. Too many families choose what is easiest for the hearing family members and fail to consider what is actually the best way for the entire family, deaf child included.
- Is a CI a way to remediate hearing loss, or is it simply my way of denying the reality: my child is deaf? If the CI is a way of avoiding the issue by making the child as hearing as possible, then there are some emotional issues that parents need to address before pulling the trigger on this decision.
- Will I do whatever is necessary to include my child in every single aspect of my life – church, finances, emotional decisions, dinner table discussions, sexuality, morality, theology, politics, jokes, pranks, Christmas – if he has a CI? Knowing all the work it will take? If not, will I do what is necessary if I pursue sign language instead of CI?
- What will be the best long-term option (education, friends, work, money) for my child? The question, again, is not, “What will work for now?” nor “What do I really wish would work best?”
And so on, and on, and on.
As you can see, there is nothing specifically Christian about the approach. Our Christian worldview should drive us to fair decisions that take into account the needs of the child first and the entire family (including the child) second, but a non-Christian worldview would likely come up with the same questions. Tragically, in my experience Christian parents are only marginally better at making decisions that consider the needs of the deaf child within the family.