Fat Middle-Aged Wannabe

This is an occasional blog exploring spiritual matters.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Some Historical Background

Here is a little bit of historical background on the "life" issue. I found the article superficial, but perhaps a good starting point for some research....

Saturday, March 26, 2005

More Thoughts on Terri Shiavo

I thought that this post by David Brooks in the New York Times was interesting. As always, I believe that he misstates the liberal case, but in this instance not by a whole lot. Trying to define who should be allowed to die seems like trying to define pornography: we know it when we see it, but we can't define it. And that puts those who believe that not all cells with human DNA in them constitute "sacred" life at a BIG disadvantage. The nice thing about being a conservative on this issue is that you can just say "life begins at conception, and after that if it looks like a human it is," and be done with it. It's pretty obvious to everyone who thinks about it that this position errs on the side of life, and of course that's the point.

The question is, what does that error cost us? In the case of Terri Shiavo, one can only speculate. If she actually is concious in a way that any of us would recognize, I can't imagine a worse fate for any human: she is locked in a solitary confinement more complete and final than anything to be found in the worst prison on earth. Forcing a "real" human to suffer such punishment would be considered cruel and unusual punishment by most everybody, and yet we have forced Terri Shiavo to suffer it for fifteen years. About 5000 days. A very long time. Why do we allow this? Because the only way that anyone knows to free her is to allow her to die and we have not, as a species, come to a concensus of when that is OK. Why do we consider it "inhumane" to allow a dog, or a cat, or a horse to undergo this kind of suffering, but positively necessary to force humans to undergo it? And remember, we have been forcing Terri Shiavo to go through this - she has had no means by which to stop us. If you're wondering what this might be like, you could try reading "Johnny got his Gun," by Dalton Trumbo. There are some excerpts here.

What if Terri Shiavo is not conscious in a recongnizably human way? I.e., what if we could all agree that she was aware, but that her level of self-awareness was at or below that of a dog or a cow? Then would it be OK to let her die? Would it be OK to euthanize her, as most people would do without hesitation for a dog or a cow? The thought of that makes even liberals wince (yes, it's true, all you conservatives out there). But would it be OK to force her to live? Even dogs feel pain, and most people I know would consider it inhumane to force a dog to live under the conditions that Terri Shiavo is living under.

Finally, what if Terri Shiavo really is brain dead, and feels nothing at all? In this case I think that we can all agree that there is no moral reason not to keep her alive - it costs us nothing but money. But of course in this case we can probably all agree that there is also no reason not to let her body die.

For sure there are no "good" options here. There is only the least bad option. This is a basic fact about the "right to life" debate that most "right-to-lifers" seem to ignore. They pretend that choosing life is always a good choice. It may always be the right choice, but it is certainly not always a good choice.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Good Friday

What did Christ do for us on the cross? The standard answer is that he "atoned" for our sins, in particular for the original sin with which we all are born. I sort of believe that, but with a twist. It seems to me that what people 3000 years ago thought of as "original sin", I think of as "animal nature" or "survival instinct." Because of the evolutionary process by which we were created, we developed certain instincts - we learned to value our lives above the lives of others, we learned to value the members of our tribe above the members of another tribe, and we learned to assert our own selfish interest in our struggle to survive. Eventually, we developed to a point where our survival was no longer is danger from other competing species, but began to be most threatened by the very instincts that had served us so well for hundreds of thousands of years.

And then along came Christ. He showed us how to move to the next step on our evolution toward God. He taught us to love ALL people; not just members of our tribe, not just the strong who could give us the most obvious advantage. And ultimately, he taught us that there is something greater than simple survival of the body. That the love that each of us shows towards others through the Holy Spirit is more important even than the life of our own body. I suppose it's not surprising, given the pace of evolution, that even after 2000 years we have barely begun to understand what Christ was teaching us, and have even less been able to apply the lessons that he taught. But what an AMAZING gift! This truly is GOOD Friday.

What is "Life"?

This Terri Shiavo thing has affected me pretty deeply. I have lots of questions, like:

  • Which people/creatures is it OK to kill, and which is it not OK to kill?
  • Which people/creatures MUST be killed, and which is it OK to allow to live?
  • Which people/creatures is it OK to keep from dying, and which MUST be allowed to die?
  • Which people/creatures MUST be kept from dying, and which is it OK to allow to die?
  • Is a human life intrinsically more valuable than the life of other animals? If so why, exactly?
  • If human life is intrinsically special, what constitutes "human life" in this sense (i.e., "intrinsically valuable")?

You may ask, "Greg, how in the world did you get so wrapped around the axle?" A fair question. In responding to a post on dry_bones_dance, I made the following comment:

Well, it appears that everyone values the "sanctity of life," or they say they do anyway. But isn't the Shiavo case about the definition of "life"?

"Abortion stops a beating heart!". You've all seen the bumper sticker. But so does slaughtering a cow to turn it into hamburgers. What exactly is the difference between a human fetus and a healthy adult cow, or between Ms. Shiavo in her current state and a healthy adult cow, besides the obvious things like the exact sequence of their DNA and their outward appearance? This is a repugnant example, I'll admit, but think about it. It is equivalent to answering the question "What is it about humans that separates them from other animals in an essential way - that makes their lives intrinsically more valuable than the lives of other animals." My answer to this question is based on the notion that mankind is created in the image of God in some essential way that the rest of creation is not. And based on that answer I would argue that the essentially god-like portion of Terri Shiavo is already dead. So I think that what really bothers some people about the "right to life" movement, in addition to the obvious hypocracy noted above, is the very technical way in which they define "life". Namely, anything with human DNA, more than one cell, and alive in the biological sense. It is not in the least bit clear to me that every object meeting this definition should be treated equally when defining "life"

Christy, a sensible blogger, made the following reply:

I'm with you on the part where people are created in the image of God in a way that the rest of creation is not. As for the definition of "life", when it comes to Terri Schiavo, I go with the obvious - as she is not brain dead, she is alive. I am uncomfortable with making a decision about whether or not the godlike portion of her is dead - that raises a whole host of questions for me. What about developmentally disabled people or those who are severely disabled and unable to communicate? Are we saying that their lives do not have value? What constitutes the godlike portion of a person? What does it mean that we are created in the image of God - is it the ability to reason or something else? I'd be interested in hearing your take on all that.

To which I replied, among other things:

Just because I think that Terri Shiavo's body should be allowed to die doesn't mean that I think that allowing it to die is a good thing, or even an OK thing. I think that the entire situation is tragic. It does mean that I think it is a better option than forcing her body to remain alive, given that a good portion of her brain, including her ability to interact with the physical world, is already dead. Maybe her spirit has already returned to God, or maybe it is locked in her body waiting for release. In either case I think that allowing her body to finish dying is the best of some very bad choices.

The reason that I didn't actually answer her question is that after about an hour of typing I realized that this was a little more involved than I thought. Answering her question is what I expect this blog to be about for a while.

For starters, note that in the original post I said "the essentially god-like portion of Terri Shiavo is already dead", while in my second post I said "Maybe her spirit has already returned to God, or maybe it is locked in her body waiting for release" But isn't Terri's spirit that part of her which is most "godlike?" If so, then which part of Terri is it that I think has died, and why does the death of that part make it OK to let the rest of her body die?

I find that I am suddenly confused about the meaning of lots of words that I thought I understood, like "life," "death," and "human." And suddenly that are a whole host of ways to pass from "life" to "death" (whatever that means): One can die, one can be allowed to die, one can be forced to die, and one can be killed. Similarly, one can live, one can be allowed to live, one can be forced to live, and one can be created (in the sense of procreation). One can choose to procreate, one can be forced to procreate, one can be allowed to procreate, one can be prevented from procreating, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. Then, for each one of these actions, there are a host of possible moral judgements. Say, for example, that a certain person is "allowed to live". It may be "essential" that they be allowed to live. It may be merely "good" that they are allowed to live. It may be "tolerable" that they are allowed to live. It may be a "crime" that they are allowed to live.

No wonder, then, that I am so ambivalent about things like:
  • abortion
  • physician-assisted suicide
  • suicide in the case of terminal illness
  • euthanasia
  • war
  • the exploitation of poor nations by rich nations
  • the death penalty

To say nothing of eating meat (the rest of my family are vegetarians).

It really doesn't look like I'll make it through this in one post.