On the Matter of Public-Funding for Abortion

 

This past week, I took the opportunity to respond to an editorial column in a local newspaper. In that column, Julian Sereno complained of efforts of legislators present and past to prevent public monies from subsidizing elective abortion. Sereno’s column may be read in its entirety at the following URL:

http://www.thedurhamnews.com/2011/06/15/207203/abortion-opponents-imposing-their.html

 

For those of you looking to hone your critical thinking skills on the anvil of bioethics, I would encourage you to read Sereno’s column, analyze his arguments, and then formulate a response that adheres to a 250-word maximum limit.  Post your response here for the benefit of others and/or for critical interaction.

Once you have completed that task, if you are begging for more work, feel free to critically review my response, which may be accessed at the following URL:

http://www.thedurhamnews.com/2011/06/22/207338/all-legislation-proceeds-from.html

 

I hope you will take this small exercise as an encouragement to engage others in your community on matters bioethic.

On Same-Sex “Marriage” Legislation: Political Defections in New York State

 

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported a shift in political support for same-sex “marriage” legislation in New York State.  Four state senators (three Democrats, one Republican) who had voted against the measure two years ago have now publicly declared their support, and with a few more Republican defections anticipated, politicians on both sides of the issue expect the measure to clear the senate and become law.

For this blog, I’d like to focus on the explanations the politicians offered the WSJ in support of their realignment on the issue.

First, there is republican Sen. Jim Alesi, whose reported rationale was that “Social justice should apply to all.” Few phrases appear more frequently in contemporary ethical discourse than “social justice,” and few are as malleable.  In its context, Alesi’s usage of the term reflects the view that social justice is to be construed as fairness manifesting in identical treatment under the law. More generally, the issue is, for Alesi, a moral one, and on that point we agree. In truth, each and every law (proposed or enacted) reflects a particular vision of what is right and good. Anyone who says “you cannot legislate morality” is either ignorant or dishonest for law by its very nature reflects moral vision—be it good or bad. So, in weighing legislative proposals,  one  ought to carefully consider the moral assumptions that undergird the competing positions. On the issue at hand, Alesi’s conception of  justice is certainly ripe for examination, and it begs the question “what is  justice?” Will justice truly be served if homosexual “marriage” is granted legal sanction?

Second, there is the response of Sen. Joseph Addabbo, who reportedly remarked “For me, my vote was about one thing: my people and my district.”  The WSJ reporter, Jacob Gershman,  interpreted Addabbo’s comment as indicative of the senator’s sensitivity to the views of his constituents, and he is probably right though other interpretations are possible.  Less ambiguous was the comment of Addabbo’s colleague, Sen. Shirley Huntley: “I did a survey. I can tell you the numbers had changed.” As presented, Huntley’s position rests on the notion that the legislator’s primary task is to deliver on the preferences of some critical mass of voters, presumably a perceived majority.  Legislating in this manner may be expedient  and facilitative of one’s efforts to remain in power, but is it right and proper? Does government exist merely to ratify and enact the impulse of the majority? To whom are legislators chiefly accountable?

Lastly and, perhaps, most forthright was the explanation of Sen. Carl Kruger, who proudly proclaimed, “We’re about to redefine what the American family is, and that’s a good thing.” Kruger is to be commended for his honest disclosure of intent, but what about his bold moral claim?  Is the social transformation Kruger has in mind truly a “good thing?” By what measure should we assess that claim?

I’ve asked several questions, and certainly there are more. Your thoughts?

On the Death of “Dr. Compassion?”

Last week, I responded in my blog to the death of Jack Kevorkian, known to his medical colleagues first, and the world later, as “Dr. Death.” Over the past week, I have followed the national media’s treatment of Kevorkian’s passing, and among the various responses, one editorial letter published online by the Washington Post (June 7) caught my particular attention. In that letter, retired Episcopalian priest Edward Morgan III commented,

“Recently I was invited to speak at a retirement community on ‘faithful dying.’ Toward the end of my presentation, one man asked me what I thought about Dr. Kevorkian. Not wishing to overstay my time limit, I kept it simple: ‘I know he has the nickname ‘Dr. Death,’ but I call him ‘Dr. Compassion’ . . .  I am not worthy to address the complexities faced by medical practitioners — God bless them all! — but consider one of the Hippocratic Oath’s first charges: ‘That into whatsoever house you shall enter, it shall be for the good of the sick to the utmost of your power.’ When physical healing is not possible, is not what Dr. Kevorkian sought for his patients the higher good?”

As I thought about Morgan’s invocation of the Hippocratic tradition in defense of Kevorkian, my first thought was, “what about ‘do no harm?’” From my prior studies, I knew that while those words are not explicitly stated in the Hippocratic Oath, they do represent a major thrust of this long-honored code. More to the issue of Morgan’s concern, I specifically recalled the Hippocratic injunction against physician involvement in euthanasia, which, per the late  Ludwig Edelstein, reads as

“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”

Assuming Morgan was familiar with the Oath in its entirety, his appeal to the venerated Hippocratic tradition struck this reader as a case of proof-texting writ large.

Out of fairness, however, I considered the possibility that Morgan was misinformed (i.e., working from a poor translation of the Oath). As best I can tell, he is quoting from a modernized version that the American Medical Association used to reprint in their Code of Medical Ethics.  Here is how the AMA version renders the passage in question:

“That you will exercise your art solely for the cure of your patients, and will give no drug, perform no operation, for a criminal purpose, even if solicited, far less suggest it”

In this version, the Hippocratic condemnation of medically-assisted suicide has been softened as bad ethics is reduced to mere criminality. Yet, the demand that physicians work for the  “cure” of their patients seems to preserve the core principle as to kill, most assuredly,  is not to cure. So, even if Morgan is working from the AMA’s version of the Oath, his subsumption of Kevorkian “medicine” within a Hippocratic ethic still exceeds the bounds of credulity.  To state the obvious, Kevorkian was no Hippocrates.

As for the appellation of “Dr. Compassion,”  I won’t deny that Kevorkian viewed his advocacy of PAS as an expression of compassion for patients beset by intense suffering and pain. I do reject, however, the notion that slipping a patient a syringe full of poison can rightly be considered compassionate medicine, much less facilitative of a “higher good” per Morgan.

On the Death of “Dr. Death”

This past Friday, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the ardent advocate of “physician-assisted suicide” (PAS) whose preoccupation with death earned from his medical colleagues the moniker “Dr. Death,” died in a Michigan hospital after a protracted illness. On the manner of his death, his attorney, Mayer Morganroth,  reportedly commented, “It was peaceful, . . . He didn’t feel a thing” (cnn.com; 06/03/11).

If you ask most people their preference on how they hope their death will go down, you will, no doubt,  consistently encounter the anesthetic wish evident in Morganroth’s words. Who, in their right mind, would truly desire an intensely painful death? Not I, for one.

Yet, while we might all prefer a peaceful death, is it to be pursued at all costs? Kevorkian thought so, and so he risked his own freedom and reputation to provide for others a terminal escape from chronic pain and disability. Better it is, he reasoned, to take matters into our own hands by inducing a quick and seemingly painless end to life, than to endure the indefinite prolongation of an exceedingly unpleasurable experience.

In one word, Kevorkian was a hedonist – specifically, one tending to the order of Epicurus who viewed  the absence of pain and anxiety as sacrosanct.   Paradoxically, Epicurus took a dim view on suicide, but that inconsistency would be rectified by his followers who understood that if death is, as Epicurus had argued, the end of feeling (and existence), then it is to be preferred over a continuing state of unrelenting pain. Furthermore, there could be no fear of divine reprobation for those who ceased to exist.

As for the concern over divine judgment, Kevorkian, a self-professed agnostic, scoffed. How an agnostic can be so confident on a question of divine disposition is  a question for another post.  I’ll close this one with the observation that while  Dr. Death may be dead and gone, the push for PAS remains. Supporters are as determined as ever to harness the medical profession to the task of killing the disabled and infirm. The social barrier to “medicide” is fast eroding as a resurgent Epicureanism permeates our culture, and so, though a fringe figure at his death, Kevorkian may in the not-too-distant future be hailed as a national hero.

Your thoughts?

A Memorial Day Post

Today is the day our nation has set aside to commemorate its fallen warriors. It seems right and fitting that we diverge for a moment from a direct discussion of matters bioethic.

As the saying goes, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” and so, as we enjoy the blessings of liberty, we ought to acknowledge our indebtedness to those who have secured and defended it at great cost. Indeed, we do well to honor on this day those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in that effort and whose number well exceeds 1 million. Our commemoration, then, ought to be marked by a deep sense of gratitude.

We do well, also, to remember those who bear a disproportionate share of the burden of military deaths.  Long after the joy of a soldier’s safe return home subsides, the grief borne by families less fortunate remains. So as we honor the sacrifice of those lost in battle, we also bring attention to the loss experienced by those whose lot it has been to carry on without that son or daughter, that mother or father, that wife or husband, that sister or brother. Our commemoration, then, ought to be marked by a genuine sympathy for those grieving their lost warrior.

Finally, we do well as we reflect upon the sacrifices of past generations to consider the opportunity we have to work for the good of future generations. Some may be called to bear the sword as dutiful agents of the state as our fallen warriors have done, but most of us will not. Even so, as citizens we may all labor mightily to secure for our posterity a nation that embodies in its laws the great value God has placed on human life and liberty. Our commemoration, then, ought to be marked by a commitment to sacrificial service.

 

On Michael D. West and the Medical Crusade to Defeat Death, Part 2

In last week’s blog, I introduced the topic of Michael D. West’s crusade against human mortality. West’s ardent desire, as he puts it, has long been to  “extract the ‘green essence’ of life, the secret of the immortal renewal of life, to hold it in my hand and to give it to my fellow human being.”

The quest, for West, is, in fact, a matter of moral obligation of such gravity as to trump any concern of “trespassing in a realm in which we humans have no right to go.” Neighbor love, he believes, demands biomedical crusade. As he further states, “Every human being should have not only the right but the passionate duty to reach out with all his or her strength to help others, even if it involves such controversial technology as cloning. If that means playing God, then it is playing God in a good way. I realized that I would do anything to save a human life, short of harming a fellow human.”

 

What key assumptions do you find in West’s defense of the biomedical crusade against death?

What do you think of the criticism that West and others like him are  “playing God” in their pursuit of the “green essence?” Is there a legitimate concern that biomedicine might be encroaching upon divine sovereignty over human life? If so, where is the line to be drawn?

Does the fact that West’s critics generally  value the project of medicine (i.e. human intervention in the course of disease) undermine their use of the “playing God” argument?

 

On Michael D. West and the Medical Crusade to Defeat Death, Part 1

This past week I picked up a copy of The Immortal Cell, written by gerontologist Michael D. West, founder of Geron Corporation and, later, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT).  Geron and ACT  were quite  significant  in the early development of  human embryonic stem (HES) cell research. In West’s personal account of the history of the field, there is much to grab the reader’s attention, perhaps none more so than the conclusions he reached one afternoon as a young baccalaureate while reflecting upon death. As he recounts (p.30),

“I realized that it was simply not in my nature to accept death or be defeated by it. The call wasn’t even a close one. I could never again resign myself to laying my loved ones down in the grave. It was crystal clear to me what I had to do. I had to defeat death.“

 

Interestingly, West presents this life-changing experience on the back-end of a discussion of how he came to surrender his belief in man as a special creation to an evolutionary account of human origins. This juxtaposition raises some interesting questions:

Can evolutionary theory truly accommodate West’s intense loathing of human suffering and death? On what account can these be viewed in negative terms if they come part and parcel with the evolutionary process?

Does West’s crusade against death entail the notion that human evolution has somehow reached its pinnacle?

If West et al conquer death, how might human evolution proceed? If people are going to live forever and the resources to support them are finite, then it would seem that the instinct for self-preservation would demand a halt to reproduction. Ironically, a core feature of the evolutionary process – reproductive success – will have to be resisted, or so it seems.

Setting aside the consideration of a campaign against death within an evolutionary paradigm, on what points may Christians agree and disagree with West in his view towards death?

Who’s Your Momma?

Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported the C-section delivery of Finnean Lee Connell on February 11, 2011 to 61-year-old Kristine Casey. Not only is Ms. Casey the oldest women on record in Illinois to bear a child, she also appears to be the state’s first parturient “grandmother.” Through the wonders of assisted reproductive technology, Ms. Casey’s uterus was recalled from post-menopausal retirement to incubate the child that her daughter, Sara Connell, and husband Bill had conceived via in vitro fertilization.

Commenting on the birth, Casey’s obstetrician, Dr. Susan Gerber, stated “the surgery itself was uncomplicated, and the emotional context of this delivery was so profound.” Indeed, it was for Ms. Casey, the fulfillment of a “deeper calling” that emerged as she contemplated her post-retirement years and her daughter’s protracted struggle to bear children. Of the whole experience, her daughter remarked, “It grew beyond the two of us having a child,. . . It was about the closeness with my mother, and our family having this experience that was unique and special.”

Also contained in the Tribune report was the analysis of Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, who reportedly “had no ethical objections to the idea of a 61-year-old having a baby, as long as she had undergone a thorough medical and psychological evaluation.” For Johnston, Ms. Casey’s surrogacy “seem[ed] like an unquestionably loving and generous thing for a family member to do . . . It’s a great story to tell the child . . . It’s one of those situations where outsiders might wonder if it’s OK or healthy. But the experience of that child and his family will be that it’s good. … If they treat it as good, it will be experienced that way.”

Your comments? Do you think Johnston has it right? Will this be “a great story” for Finnean and his family? Why might others “wonder if it’s OK or healthy?” Has Johnson passed over some important ethical concerns?

Contemplating “The Scandal”

CBHD Scandal of Bioethics Conference Graphic

CBHD Scandal of Bioethics Conference Graphic

This coming July, the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity will host its 18th annual conference. This year’s theme is “The Scandal of Bioethics: Reclaiming Christian Influence in Technology, Science & Medicine.” The conference theme poses a number of interesting questions that, I believe, would be worth considering in advance of the meeting.

First, do you believe Christian moral reflection has been marginalized in bioethical discourse and public policy decision-making, and if so, in what ways?

Second, what may we cite as the evidence of a contemporary bioethics bereft of Christian influence? How might the bioethical terrain differ from its present state if the Christian voice had enjoyed a more sustained presence in public policy discourse?

Third, to what may one attribute this marginalization of Christian moral reflection in bioethics? Is the problem external to the Christian community, or do we share in the blame? If the latter, in what way?

We’ll save the question of a way forward for another post, but perhaps you have other questions pertaining to the diagnosis of a diminished Christian influence in contemporary bioethics and its underlying cause(s).

Your comments?