Affirming human dignity for all

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We live in a time when around the world so many lives seem not to matter. Whether they be Uighur lives, women’s lives, Black lives, Yemeni lives or refugee lives. So widely disregarded in practice, the large claim that every life has value, however, oftentimes has to be justified. The ultimate reason is that each human being is precious and has an inalienable dignity. No person may be used as a means to another’s end.

Main image: Men hugging (Dimitar Belchev/Unsplash)

Furthermore, human beings depend on one another to come into life and at every stage of life. For that reason we are not isolated individuals but are bound in relationships to one another and to our world. That interconnection at the heart of our humanity explains why our lives matter to others.

Life means more than merely not being dead. It includes our relationships: personal, and those to our ethnic, religious, political and social groups and to the institutions of which we are part. For that reason we can properly speak of Black lives, Catholic lives, Californian lives, Muslim lives and LGBTQ+ lives.

The network of relationships that constitutes each human life suggests that we should consider how each human life matters. This consideration draws attention to the precious humanity of each person and to the concrete relationships that shape their distinctive humanity. It leads us naturally to ask whether the way in which those social and power relationships are structured in society respects the equal humanity of each person or discriminates against it.

If we insist that each human life matters, we should be doubly grateful that people from particular groups in society protest against discrimination that devalues and puts at risk their lives, and insist that the lives of people in their group matter. Black lives, Rohinga lives, Uighur lives, Communist lives, asylum seeker lives and, I would argue, the lives of the unborn are equally precious and equally command respect. Movements that defend them assert that each human life matters.

Why, then, is any defence of human life controversial? One reason may be the tension between the grief and disturbance that we often feel when confronted with death, and the sheer number of people who lose their lives avoidably. People die in war, in avoidable starvation, are executed by governments or mobs, die of neglect, from domestic violence, in road and industrial accidents, in protests. They take their own lives, die as a result of decisions that are not their own in hospitals and elsewhere. Because it is impossible to feel equally for all, it is easy to be hostile to attempts to appeal to our compassion or anger for particular groups.

More significantly, campaigns to protect the right to life of particular groups often stand in conflict with the rights claimed by others to take those lives. Governments, for example, variously give their officers the right and even the duty to take away lives: in response to violent uprisings, in conducting war, in protecting themselves and others when policing, and in legally sanctioned executions. In the case of abortion, too, any right that might attach to a living embryo to develop into an independently living human being is commonly outweighed by a woman’s right to decide what is done to her own body, particularly in situations of great need. In all these cases public security, personal need or individual choice are understood to outweigh the personal right to life. The understanding is generally upheld by popular opinion, particularly in times of crisis.

 

'If we insist that each human life matters, we should be doubly grateful that people from particular groups in society protest against discrimination that devalues and puts at risk their lives, and insist that the lives of people in their group matter.'

 

The desire to save or make money also often outweighs in practice others’ right to life. The use of unsafe building materials, the adulteration of food and the release of toxins into the air or water sources have taken many lives. Many more people die, however, because of the choice to do nothing. Despite there being enough food in the world to feed everyone and enough medicine to cure many, many people because drugs are patented and they have no access to surplus food. If we were to put a price on human life, we would have to say that the life of a person in an undeveloped nation matters less than that of someone in a wealthy nation.

That respect for life is so vulnerable in so many contexts makes it clear that in order to protect lives it is essential to change attitudes. This demands that societies must recognise the economic, racial, ideological and social structures that breed contempt for life, and must dismantle them. To ensure that all lives do count it is essential to change attitudes so that the life of someone who has committed a crime is as valuable as a person is as that of someone who is innocent, and that starvation anywhere in the world is the business of all, despite the cost of its prevention. Ultimately the coming together of prejudice and the readiness to treat people as means to others’ ends makes lives not matter.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Men hugging (Dimitar Belchev/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, human dignity, social justice, Black Lives Matter

 

 

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Ash Wednesday brings out "The Waste Land" reader in me. "After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying" (V. What the Thunder Said). My comment is directed towards women's issues which are currently, and recurrently, in the news. Women are raped in workplaces, they are murdered in their homes, they are denied opportunities. Every woman suffers because of this. The right to life is precious, although when half the population of the world continues to struggle in this way it is downright disturbing to such a degree that it is difficult to keep our heads above water.
Pam | 18 February 2021


...L: "In a time when it wasn't popular to do so, you lived openly as a homosexual in London. And of course I would guess a question you must be tired of is, why subject yourself to abuse, was it the mid 40's"? Q.C: "The mid 30's" L: "So why subject yourself to this abuse and it certainly was abuse, wasn't it"? Q.C: "Oh, it was indeed, but I never really had any alternative. I didn't come out, I was never in. I could never have disguised myself as a human being." Q.C. Source: Quentin Crisp Collection on Letterman, 1982-83.
AO | 18 February 2021


I don't disagree with the contention of the article but I'm usually cautious to observe the purpose of contemporary exception claims and find the opening sentence "We live in a time..." more disarming than some Dickension best of/ worst of times introduction. I'd have to challenge the author to cite some other time (in which we did not live) when minority group lives seemed to matter more than now. While the world may not yet have resolved the various dignity issues surely the debates ARE currently the matters at hand, forefront of so many stories, news events and certainly a higher public awareness. I struggle with the notion that there was some other time that certain groups "mattered" more or were more highly valued. Then Andrew takes an interesting diversion to encompass lives in undeveloped nations; those very LOUD, constant voices of BLM, LGBTQI+ and a procession of vocal others eat up the available airplay time, inevitably someone(s) will miss out. When it comes to public attention, no matter what way you cut it there's only one pie. A penny for your thoughts on the recent arrest of a person with a sign "ALL LIVES MATTER" at a BLM protest march...
ray | 18 February 2021


". . . the large claim that every life has value . . . the ultimate reason is that each human being is precious and has an inalienable dignity." As Fr Andrew says, this claim "has to be justified." Since it has the tenor and substance of an absolute moral imperative, and since the human mind seeks reason for its affirmations, the claim raises the question of the nature of its source or foundation: Whence the absolute and confidently universal status of its authority? At some point, appropriately deep inquiry and discourse about what we affirm as universal rights essential to human dignity must be open to the postulation of God and the soul, at least implicit in moral discourse, including - perhaps especially so - what we regard as self-evident first principles. Thus far reason takes us, but there is more that needs to be and can be said. The scripturally revealed Judeo-Christian axiom of humans being created in "the image and likeness" of their Creator - rational, free and thus capable of the moral reflection and the exercise of choice characteristic of beings able to love - further illuminates moral argument for the existence of God as the authoritative source or foundation of our affirming the "inalienable dignity" of us humans. Newman identifies the conscience aligned with truth as the voice of God in the depths of us, a description highly influential in Vatican II's articulation of the nature of human being ("The Church in the Modern World", I , 14-16). An exclusively secular rationale for human rights and dignity would do less than justice to claims for their inviolability, and invite a relativity that neither respects nor protects the unique dignity and absolute value, conferred by God, of the human person.
John RD | 19 February 2021


The right to tell someone why you ‘need’ is counterpoised with an obligation on him to tell you why your need is only a want. The right to tell someone why you want is counterpoised with an obligation to be told why you are asking too much. Why? Because --- ‘That interconnection at the heart of our humanity explains why our lives matter to others’ ---- that interconnection means that the needs or wants of one impose a cost on the other, if not material, then psychic. Everyone knows the drill to love your neighbour: what they don’t know is a common algorithm for how to do it. An algorithm is a rationality. Rationality is required because when St. Paul said that we should prefer the other to ourselves, did he mean, to cite practical policy, that Hungary or Poland should submerge its Catholic identity to a tsunami of Islamic asylum seekers (or that Central and South American Catholic border-crossers should have preferred the right of the US to choose its immigrants above themselves)? Rights, obligations, either side’s claim of the relevance of self-defence, and the distinction between intrinsic and prudential evils: the algorithmic counterpoise exists because of them.
roy chen yee | 19 February 2021


If human beings are indeed created in "the image and likeness of God" does that also mean that the Creator is capable of messing things up just as the human being has done from time immemorial?
john frawley | 19 February 2021


1) John RD on the other page to David Halliday : I hope ES's future directions will include among its "marginalised" voices those of Catholics who support Church teachings on the 'hot' topics the magazine has addressed in recent years - particularly, marriage, abortion and euthanasia, which all have direct relevance to the dignity of life foundational to Catholic moral and social teaching. I would like to add, about Marriage, I think it is about time the Catholic Church TAKES very seriously the cries, for help from many abused women, by their husbands, many a time in front of their children, married in the Catholic Church. One voice should be enough for an ANNULMENT! The abused woman's voice. No witnesses or paperwork is necessary! How many of those murdered women, by their husbands mentioned by Pam, above, were denied help from the Church? I mean Real Help, in being listen to in the confessional and actually really helped, to break away from the grip of their violent an abusive husband? A taxi driver once in Europe told me, it is easier and cheaper for a man to murder his wife than to divorce her, give her alimony or the house etc: the prison sentence is only for shorter time. After which, he is a free man again! If Denouncing Abuse is a must now in the Church. You can read this at the bottom of every Church Bulletin.
AO | 19 February 2021


2) If the police listen, and now the church says it does also. Well!! It's time abused women are given (granted) an ANNULMENT! At the very first signs of physical, psychological, emotional and or sexual abuse at the hands of their husbands! If Church Law and Civil Law must also now work together, as has been decided to eradicate abuse towards, women, minors and vulnerable persons. So they must ALSO work together to protect abused married women and their children from violent ( sometimes very crazy) men they have married. Nowhere in the Bible does it say a married man can abuse and kill his wife! Well, it does, perhaps in the OLD LAW. John the baptised symbolized that Barbaric LAW. And he was beheaded for giving witness to Who Jesus IS. Jesus' Law is completely NEW and must be the true Bases of Cannon Law. Let's not let 10 more centuries go by! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liber_Gomorrhianus. The Catholic Church needs to Act Now.
AO | 19 February 2021


john frawley: I should think that since God is the fullness of love whose perfection and wisdom are freely expressed in Trinitarian life and creation, sin, or defection from the infinite essence of divine being - unlike us finite human creatures - is not an option. In scriptural terms, God is all-holy; we are not.
John RD | 19 February 2021


Andy, with the exception of Pam's remark, your closing paragraph and, in particular, your last sentence, seems to expresses a prescience that perfectly describes the assault on what you've written that subsequently follows. It is regrettably necessary, however, to first draw out the poison that so infects some quarters of our dysfunctional Church (as to often obfuscate and pervert its mission) before virtue can be given a chance to surface. I thank you from the bottom of my pessimistic heart, and commend you for your courage in never hesitating nor shrinking from breaking open the central message of Christ's challenge to us to unconditionally love, especially those who have transgressed the most. Your boil-lancing exercise, accordingly, always gentle and administered under the soothing salve of an anesthesia that is unquestionably intended never to cause offence, let alone to draw pain, (contrasting with the curmudgeonliness with which you have been met) seems to have made its mark in exposing the lovelessness of the scribes and pharisees, who have peppered this page so far with their 'Yes; buts'. While I think that your gentle fervorino and its sharp and convoluted ripostes speak for themselves, it would be interesting to see what follows.
Michael Furtado | 19 February 2021


Thank you so much Andrew for your reaffirmation the value of the young life. Justice is the crowning guiding principle of life and justice implies inclusivity. No exclusion on the basis of race, gender, age, disability, creed, status, sexual orientation etc. All lives matter. Very, very occasionally, we may be faced with irreconcilable dilemma- compelling medical necessity, untreatable pain and suffering. There may no guideline. Mostly we inevitably decide to commit to play justice or advantage. Life can very, very tough. Take good good care and reach out.
Michael Clanchy | 19 February 2021


'Affirming human dignity' is one of those catch cries which every decent person would have to rally to. But, as John RD points out, it does refer back to the concept of the human person and what you believe that to be. In times past Christians were a lot clearer about that. Or at least some of them were, such as St John Fisher, William Wilberforce and his circle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Beyers Naude. These days, when much Christianity has morphed into a soggy suet pudding of questionable belief which compromises with some very shaky conventional wisdom, such as that about psychologically immature young people being assisted to transition to the opposite sex with irreversible drug use and surgery, we are in a moral minefield. Recent actual or proposed legislation in supposedly 'progressive' Victoria scares the living daylights out of me. Some of this legislation seems counter intuitive and repressive of the standard of free speech we expect in a liberal democracy. Cancel culture also raises its ugly head. Shutting out a valid opinion, just because you disagree with it, is unequivocally bad. Not all conservative opinion is 'reactionary' nor 'hate speech'. We live in parlous times. We need a rallying cry to moral sanity.
Edward Fido | 20 February 2021


‘If human beings are indeed created in "the image and likeness of God" does that also mean that the Creator is capable of messing things up….’ Very good, John Frawley, throwing up another ox-bone for us to worry at. Is what you are really asking, a few weeks before Good Friday, is how long the incarnated term of office of our Messiah should have been, president-for-life like, say, Muhammad, or the brief triennial term of an Australian prime minister under circumstances of challenge such as, for example, Jim Scullin?
roy chen yee | 20 February 2021


I suspect John Frawley was being wry. It was his sense of humour. I don't think he was 'raising a theological question'.
Edward Fido | 22 February 2021


...When speaking once, on the phone, with a very well know Australian journalist and former host of A Current Affair, about Annulments. He ended the conversation saying something along the lines, "Of course the other solution is to pay a fee". Everybody who knows anything about Annulments, also knows of this option. Now, how does the Catholic Church justify this transaction? What Law does it follow when this transaction is agreed upon? When very, very clearly Jesus denounced these forms of monetary transactions and dealing. John 2: 16. The Catholic Church needs to Change Now. Not Exchange 'Goods' (the lives of the abused) for money.
AO | 22 February 2021


...When speaking once, on the phone, with a very well know Australian journalist, about Annulments. He ended the conversation saying something along the lines," Of course the other solution is to pay a fee". Everybody who knows anything about Annulments, also knows of this option'' Now, how does the Catholic Church justify this transaction? What Law does it follow when this transaction is agreed upon? When very, very clearly Jesus denounced these forms of monetary transactions and dealing. John 2: 16. The Catholic Church needs to Change Now. Not Exchange ''Goods'' ( the abused lives) for money.
AO | 22 February 2021


No Roy. What I was really suggesting, perhaps a little too obliquely, is that when God is perfect in all things, we humans, so imperfect in all things, couldn't possibly be created in His image - to suggest that we are may be the pinnacle of human hubris. "Remember, Man, thou art but dust and unto dust thou shall return!" seems a little inconsistent with the implied, "Remember, Man, thou art but my image and unto that image thou shall return!" Perhaps the creator was speaking only of our human element and not our spiritual element. If so, it makes me wonder what on Earth we are doing here - far less complicated if our human element hadn't been created at all. It seems so unnecessary to subject our perfect spirit, in God's image, to a trial period of behaviour designed with all manner of obstacles and hurdles to be cleared wherein failure results in damnation for eternity with the fallen angels. Perhaps Lucifer and his mates needed company and our creation was a failsafe means of providing it!
john frawley | 22 February 2021


Edward Fido: ‘I suspect John Frawley was being wry. It was his sense of humour. I don't think he was 'raising a theological question'. And you may be right. Logically, however, the fact that (as far as I know) very few people have raised the question as to whether chutney should be consumed with your morning cereal doesn’t mean that there is no such question. As to whether John Frawley intended to raise a question, it doesn’t really matter because he did have an ox-bone and it did begin to be chewed in ‘Democracy in shadow….’ Incidentally, Edward, if you take the trouble yourself, rather than delegate the task to your hapless foreign affairs minister, to give a UN speech defending your government’s treatment of the Rohingya, have you merely accepted a poisoned chalice or have you topped it up? The question goes to John’s wry question. No, a Creator can’t mess things up but a messiah (or Messiah, if you give free will its due respect in this realm) can.
roy chen yee | 22 February 2021


Everything has its due weight, Roy. We need a sense of proportion to deal with them and life appropriately.
Edward Fido | 24 February 2021


John Frawley, you must have a freezer full of ox-bones. 1. ‘couldn't possibly be created in His image’ Perhaps that question is moot. Perhaps, God having no shadow of change, that configuration of head, torso and limbs which Peter and the Apostles saw is the Second Person as he always was, before the first angel was created, and that he doesn’t look like us so much as we look like him. If he chose to make us look like him in form, it’s not a big step to assume that he might have filled out our structure from within by some similarity of function. Perhaps, we too have something akin to two natures, a spiritualised tendency, from proper catechesis, to acknowledge that the right to an opinion is always qualified by controlling facts in the spiritual world which we see but dimly in a mirror, and a carnal nature in permanent temptation to the opinion that proper feeling is only restricted by how imaginatively we can extemporise our own facts. 2. ‘It seems so unnecessary….’ It seems odd that humans will judge angels. Perhaps mercy is a judge who knows what it is like to be flawed.
roy chen yee | 24 February 2021


Edward Fido: ‘We need a sense of proportion to deal with them and life appropriately.’ Indeed, but the Church has also set the sense of proportion by defining some evils as intrinsic and others as prudential, and Chesterton in ‘Why I am a Catholic’ (free to read on the Net) explains how the division works. Was placating the military in its scapegoating of the Rohingya, by making that section of the population pay for maintaining democratic government for the rest, intrinsically evil for making instruments of the Rohingya? Or prudential because the NLD was not the coalition partner with the power of the sword and maintaining democracy for the vast majority of the population is a significant value in itself? That is the kind of dilemma any messiah eventually would have had to encounter against Herods and Pilates. It’s not a good look when a messiah kills, as with Muhammad, or even shoots in self-defence as with Joseph Smith. Military chaplains may carry a gun; they prefer not to because symbolism is important. Anyway, the democracy rug pulled from under her feet, Su Kyi is a double loser, tarnished and high and dry. Nothing is a coincidence in the heavenlies.
roy chen yee | 25 February 2021


You've loss me yet again ,Roy, in waters far too deep to permit my unskilled wading. And No! I've never been into ox-tail soup.
john frawley | 25 February 2021


The Quakers believe there is 'something of God' within every person, John. Remarkably similar to the essence of Catholic belief. Muslims believe that only God is perfect. Once again, remarkably similar. Lest Roy jump in with numerous caveats, let me assure him I do not consider similarity to be the same as unanimity. Ponderous sermons have been preached from elegant pulpits by learned Anglican and Protestant clerics addressing 'The Problem of Evil' but not quite nailing it down. Our simple medieval ancestors, living on those islands off the European mainland, would have put it down to the problem of Sin. These days words like Sin and Redemption are usually not mentioned in polite, supposedly 'Christian' company, where a variety of 'progressive' causes hold centre stage. I would say Christ affirms human dignity. How do we follow him? Aye, there's the rub. Meanwhile, in Brisbane, the Anglican Archbishop is supporting a transsexual priest married to a woman, also a priest, who gave a talk on the matter to the entire student body, including juniors, of an exclusive Anglican girls school. Whilst I can, with grave concern, try to sympathise with the person, I think the whole approach is dead wrong. I fear for the spiritual welfare of anyone endorsing this sort of situation.
Edward Fido | 25 February 2021


Edward starts with making cake and ends up with vindaloo! His admiration for the Quakers, based on the similarity between their theology and our's, doesn't obviously extend to the gender-non-specificity of their theology and religious practice. Next he launches into a tirade against Anglicans and Protestants about their 'elegant' failure to preach effectively about 'The Problem of Evil', while blithely forgetting that the finest sermons on this topic were written by CS Lewis, who was Anglican! Finally he launches into a diatribe about 'Sin & Redemption', forgetting the lesson of President Coolidge who, returning from Evensong, was asked by Mrs Coolidge, who hadn't attended, what the sermon had been about. He replied: 'Sin!' The First Lady then inquired about the content of the homily, whereupon Coolidge responded: 'He was against it'. Of course, this position universally typifies the attitude of all Christians. However, Edward's evangelical fervour, beyond ranting against it, fails to offer any hope to his audience. Perchance the transgender (NOT TRANSSEXUAL!) priest, who spoke at St Aidan's, offered more than Edward does by explaining that her decision to trans emerged from her belief that she was made that way, and also that we are called not to judge!
Michael Furtado | 25 February 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘…her belief that she was made that way, and also that we are called not to judge!’ What if Edward was only ‘discerning’? By implying that he is judging, you are judging. On towards ‘discerning’. God made man and woman, and we can reasonably imply that the man he made had the mentality or gender of a man and the woman he made had the mentality or gender of a woman. If the transgendering reverend believes in the Fall, how, logically, can he believe that a predicament of the Fall should be hallowed? Or, given that God made one man to one woman, how, logically, can a Christian homosexual or lesbian believe that his or her predicaments from the Fall should be hallowed? Or, given that God didn’t make a hermaphrodite, how can a Christian intersexer, if one exists, hallow that predicament? Or, given that God didn’t create ascetics, how can a Christian non-sexer, if one exists, believe in that carriage of the LGBTQI* train? God has provided all of the inherited and assumable designations: heterosexual man (Adam), heterosexual woman (Eve), heterosexual male celibate (Christ), and heterosexual female celibate (the Virgin Mary). Other designations are licence of will.
roy chen yee | 28 February 2021


John Frawley: ‘we humans, so imperfect in all things, couldn't possibly be created in His image - to suggest that we are may be the pinnacle of human hubris. "Remember, Man, thou art but dust and unto dust thou shall return!" seems a little inconsistent with the implied, "Remember, Man, thou art but my image and unto that image thou shall return!"’ It takes one bad apple to spoil a bunch, but it only needs one good apple to show what the rest of the bunch could have been. The Virgin Mary was born without Original Sin and lived without incurring mortal or venial sin. At every moment of her life on Earth, she had no need to be forgiven. When she died, she was bodily assumed into Heaven where she is one of, I think, three people there to have corporeal bodies, herself, her son, and Elijah, who was taken up in a chariot in the midst of walking and talking. ‘….unto dust….’ happens to most people but, as the examples of the Virgin Mary and Elijah show, it is not a necessity that all human beings must return to dust.
roy chen yee | 01 March 2021


Good questions, Roy! I can only answer them for myself. Edward, whom I dearly love & treat with high regard, was uncharacteristically ranting: not a commendable virtue. There is no such thing, as evidence proves, as the mentality of a woman or a man. While we are indeed biologically sexed, our mentality, like gender, is culturally determined and multifarious. I love and adore women as sisters and, as a parent, prioritised my children and their needs above all else. This did not make me a woman because I am comfortable in my own skin, but it did make me gay. And I love men: instinctively, habitually, inexorably. Its not that I want to; it simply is! I accept the doctrine of redemption, which means that we are all 'fallen'; not just the gender-diverse among us! So my predicaments are indeed hallowed, always humbly and inadequately, through prayer, the sacraments & celebrating life, as must be by any other Christian, and not just in terms of how we manage our sexuality. And, surprise, surprise! God does make intersex people, as well as all manner of other persons, each and every one of us in God's ineffable image, and not just for procreation!
Michael Furtado | 01 March 2021


Michael Furtado: ‘It’s not that I want to; it simply is!’ The normative judges the empirical because humans choose before they act. The idea precedes the action. Because humans always choose before they act, the idea always precedes the action. It’s Psychology 101 that it ‘simply’ is because you ‘simply’ want it to be so. Licentiousness is a choice. So is scrupulosity. The logical existence of repentance is predicated on the prior existence of choice.
roy chen yee | 05 March 2021


The normative does indeed precede the empirical, Roy. How that reduces to homosexual persons choosing to be gay beats me. Like most gay people of my generation I wouldn't in a lifetime of Sundays have chosen to be gay and suffered enormously, both in my ill-advised marriage and because of ill-informed Church teaching, for rejecting my homosexuality for 50 years of my life. Sexual attraction is innate, as any biological scientist will confirm; and the higher up the mammalian ladder the more evidence of gender diversity is to be found. Thomists are wrong about this (as indeed Aquinas was about whether women have souls) because his biological scientific knowledge, while remarkable for its time, was plainly inadequate in today's terms for the weight of the teleology upon which the Church has based its morality. Indeed, homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is normative and both are ontological facts. Thus we are called to be virtuous, as Aristotle stated in his Nichomachean Ethics (upon which Aquinas based his Natural Law Theory). By being virtuous, Aristotle advises to avoid vice. Whatever one's gender the only breach of virtue in that regard applies to instances of infidelity. That's the only example of choice coming into it!
Michael Furtado | 06 March 2021


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