The Chronicle of Higher Education, the primary news source for university and college faculty and administrators, recently published a remarkable opinion essay by a University of North Florida English professor about life with his 10-year old son, a legally blind quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. The essay was taken from a new book, Papa, Ph.D.: Essays on Fatherhood by Men in the Academy.

There is no dearth of moving stories of the sacrificial love shown by countless parents caring for severely disabled children. After all, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1 in 33 infants each year is born with birth defects, while 2-3 out of 100 have major disabilities.

Yet The Chronicle's publication of this piece, "A Life Beyond Reason," is startling, to say the least.

For one thing, the essay offers an unapologetic affirmation of the inherent value of human life, one that is not typical of academic publications. But even more arresting than the essay's conclusion is the starting point of the journey described within.

Before the birth of his son, Dr. Chris Gabbard likely would have viewed the life that his child, August, is fated to live as one not worth living. Gabbard explains that his own upbringing was immersed in a culture defined by the intelligentsia. He "grew up prizing intellectual aptitude … and detesting 'poor mental function'." The credo that guided his life was that of Socrates: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Even his own academic specialty is on the period known as the Age of Reason.

In fact, Gabbard so revered the life of the mind that he came to espouse the utilitarian, humanist views of Peter Singer, the Oxford-educated philosopher who has been a professor of Bioethics at Princeton University since 1999. Singer is most famous for his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, which established him as a founder of the animal rights movement. But he is infamous among Christians for basing personhood (in his book Practical Ethics) on the capability "of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future," or having a sense of one's "own existence over time." Singer asserts the right of society to exclude those who have no such sense (including infants and the severely disabled) by ending their lives, passively or actively.

Real life, however, has a way of exposing cracks in the foundations of flawed theories. Thus Gabbard invites readers to imagine his surprise when, during the birth of his first child, the baby's breathing failed, resulting in permanent brain damage. Gabbard writes,

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After his birth, as I entered the intensive-care nursery, I was deeply ambivalent, having been persuaded by the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer's advocacy of expanding reproductive choice to include infanticide. But there was my son, asleep or unconscious, on a ventilator, motionless under a heat lamp, tubes and wires everywhere, monitors alongside his steel and transparent-plastic crib. What most stirred me was the way he resembled me. Nothing had prepared me for this, the shock of recognition, for he was the boy in my own baby pictures, the image of me when I was an infant.

Even with this recognition, of his own image stamped into his newborn son, Gabbard and his wife, understandably, embarked upon their new lives as parents to a severely disabled child in what he calls "the tragic mode." "My son's birth initially cast me into a wilderness of perplexity, doubt, and discontent," he writes.

But several years later, the death of Terry Schiavo (whose condition, Gabbard explains, was not very different from his son's) following the court-ordered removal of the tube that delivered her food and water compelled Gabbard to seriously re-examine his serious questions. Ultimately, he joined the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, which was founded in response to Jack Kevorkian's 1996 acquittal in the assisted-suicides of two disabled women.

The significant public support for assisted suicide (46 percent of Americans find it "morally acceptable," according to a 2010 Gallup poll) hits close to home for Gabbard. "Many such well-meaning people would like end his son's suffering," he muses in the essay, "but they do not stop to consider whether he actually is suffering. At times he is uncomfortable, yes, but the only real pain here seems to be the pain of those who cannot bear the thought that people like [my son] exist."

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Gabbard's story is that in making a strong stand for the inherent value of life—his son's life—Gabbard makes no appeal to religion or a faith foundation. Indeed, he bristles at those who would attempt to tie his son's condition to the will of God or to any larger, cosmic purpose.

Even so, those of us whose framework of faith upholds us during life's tragedies can take heart in this powerful testimony that the image of our Father God inheres in all of us, even apart from our recognition that we inhere in Him.

Karen Swallow Prior is English department chair and associate professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She has written for Her.meneutics about her parents as well as for sister publication Books & Culture.