28 Mar

Terri Schiavo and our Moral Confusion

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/28/05

In thinking about the meaning of the tragedy of Terri Schiavo's life and the decisions it has generated, I spent much of Good Friday reading a number of articles by bioethicists, theologians, and various columnists. The entire time, I was haunted by the title of an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, who has written a lot about the moral nature of our care for the severely mentally retarded and more generally of those whose lives are incomprehensible and (thus?) burdensome to us. In "Must a Patient Be a Person To Be a Patient? Or, My Uncle Charlie Is Not Much of a Person But He Is Still My Uncle Charlie," Hauerwas challenged the conventional framework that guides many debates in bioethics: the definition of what constitutes personhood. According to this framework, to be alive and to be human is not sufficient to make a moral claim for care and protection. One must also be a "person," a status (in both beginning-of-life and end-of-life settings) that is usually defined in terms of capacities for reason and volition.

Leon Kass, in Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (Encounter, 2002), observes that the Western tradition of conferring dignity and respect on persons, on "rational beings" capable of "genuine moral agency," has preserved the unique value of human life by distinguishing it from beasts and machines. But, as we are painfully discovering on many issues addressed by bioethicists, it is an inadequate framework, appropriate perhaps for the Hellenistic view of human nature, but not rich enough for the account preserved by Jews and Christians in the account of Creation, and extended by Christians in reflection on the reality of the Incarnation. As Kass notes, "Precisely because it dualistically sets up the concept of 'personhood' in opposition to nature and the body, [this view of human dignity] fails to do justice to the concrete reality of our embodied lives—lives of begetting and belonging no less than of willing and thinking. . . . Precisely because 'personhood' is distinct from our lives as embodied, rooted, connected and aspiring beings, the dignity of rational choice pays no respect at all to the dignity we have through our loves and longings—central aspects of human life understood as a grown togetherness of body and soul. Not all of human dignity consists in reason or freedom." [page 17]

Reason and freedom are valued in the Biblical account of human nature. But in the modern, Enlightenment account that has shaped our political institutions and much of our thinking about the contours of caring for one another, reason and freedom are pretty much all there is to a person rightly so called. The modern picture of the human cannot account for our nature as embodied spirits created for and constituted by relationships of love.

In his book Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Eerdmans, 2nd edition 2005), Gilbert Meilaender reflects on how Christian thinking should challenge the common assumptions of our culture about "personhood": "[O]ur personal histories—precisely as histories of embodied spirits—do not require the presence of 'personal' capacities throughout. Our personal histories begin in dependence—first within our mother's womb and then as newborns. Often our life ends in the dependence of old age and the loss of capacities we once had. Personhood is not something we 'have' at some point in this history. Rather, as embodied spirits or inspirited bodies, we are persons throughout the whole of that life. One whom we might baptize, one for whom we might still pray, one for whom the Spirit of Christ may still intercede 'with sighs too deep for words' (Rom. 8:26)—such a one cannot be for us less than a person. Dependence is part of the story of a person's life." [2nd edition, page 6]

Meilaender concludes this section of his book with an observation that applies to Terri Schiavo's situation most particularly: "Those human beings who permanently lack certain empowering cognitive capacities—as well as all human beings in stages of life where those powers are absent—are simply the weakest and most needy members of our community. We can care for them and about them only by acknowledging the living bodily presence that they have among us—seeking to discern in their faces the hidden spirit, the call to community that their bodily presence constitutes, and the face of Christ." [ibid.]

In an article written for The Weekly Standard and posted online on Good Friday, Eric Cohen, the editor of The New Atlantis, also reflects on moral framework questions. "For all the attention we have paid to the Schiavo case," Cohen insists, "we have asked many of the wrong questions, living as we do on the playing field of modern liberalism."

Like Kass and Meilaender, Cohen is unhappy with the liberal idea that volition is the defining characteristic of the human: "[T]he real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are."

Cohen observes that liberalism's celebration of liberty as autonomy, as independence, distorts the meaning of the human and establishes "a set of assumptions about what makes life worth living and thus worth protecting" according to which we regard "incompetence itself as reasonable grounds for assuming that life is not worth living."

Cohen thinks that medical ethics organized around the single theme of autonomy is flawed. "[T]he autonomy regime, at its best, prevents the worst abuses—like involuntary euthanasia, where doctors or public officials decide whose life is worth living. But the autonomy regime, even at its best, is deeply inadequate. It is based on a failure to recognize that the human condition involves both giving and needing care, and not always being morally free to decide our own fate."

The article is posted online here.

In watching and reading the news coverage of Terri Schiavo's case, I can't remember hearing the word "euthanasia" once. And yet it should be clear that by withdrawing food and water from her, she is euthanized, not simply being "allowed to die." I doubt that a parent who withheld food and water from their children, or a warden who withheld food and water from a prisoner, could be excused from culpability on the grounds that they were simply allowing someone to die. In none of these cases, including Terri Schiavo's, is there a dying person, just a dependent one.

Two articles from First Things help sort through the issues involved in distinguishing killing from allowing to die. The first, "Always to Care, Never to Kill: A Declaration on Euthanasia," was produced by the Ramsey Colloquium, a group of Jewish and Christian theologians, ethicists, philosophers, and scholars that met periodically to consider questions of ethics, religion, and public life. The statement was prepared at a time when many states were considering laws liberalizing the practice of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and its principal theme was declared quite concisely: "In relating to the sick, the suffering, the incompetent, the disabled, and the dying, we must learn again the wisdom that teaches us always to care, never to kill. Although it may sometimes appear to be an act of compassion, killing is never a means of caring."

Later in the declaration, a warning that has relevance to Terri Schiavo's case was offered: "Once we cross the boundary between killing and allowing to die, there will be no turning back. Current proposals would legalize euthanasia only for the terminally ill. But the logic of the argument—and its practical consequences—will inevitably push us further. Arguments for euthanasia usually appeal to our supposed right of self-determination and to the desirability of relieving suffering. If a right to euthanasia is grounded in self-determination, it cannot reasonably be limited to the terminally ill. If people have a right to die, why must they wait until they are actually dying before they are permitted to exercise that right? Similarly, if the warrant for euthanasia is to relieve suffering, why should we be able to relieve the suffering only of those who are self-determining and competent to give their consent? Why not euthanasia for the suffering who can no longer speak for themselves? To ask such questions is to expose the logical incoherence and the fragile arbitrariness of suggested 'limits' in proposals for legalized euthanasia."

The article is available online here.

Finally, the August/September 2004 issue of First Things featured an exchange between Robert D. Orr (director of Ethics for Fletcher Allen Health Care and Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine) and Gilbert Meilaender. The exchange dealt explicitly with the question of the use of feeding tubes for patients in a "permanent vegetative state." Orr and Meilaender both agree that such patients (like Terri Schiavo) are not dying. Given that fact, Meilaender discusses this question: "Under what circumstances may we rightly refuse a life-prolonging treatment without supposing that, in making this decision, we are doing the forbidden deed of choosing or aiming at death?"

"The answer of our medical-moral tradition has been the following: we may refuse treatments that are either useless or excessively burdensome. In doing so, we choose not death, but one among several possible lives open to us. We do not choose to die, but, rather, how to live, even if while dying, even if a shorter life than some other lives that are still available for our choosing. What we take aim at then, what we refuse, is not life but treatment—treatment that is either useless for a particular patient or excessively burdensome for that patient. Especially for patients who are irretrievably into the dying process, almost all treatments will have become useless. In refusing them, one is not choosing death but choosing life without a now useless form of treatment. But even for patients who are not near death, who might live for a considerably longer time, excessively burdensome treatments may also be refused. Here again, one takes aim at the burdensome treatment, not at life. One person may choose a life that is longer but carries with it considerable burden of treatment. Another may choose a life that is shorter but carries with it less burden of treatment. Each, however, chooses life. Neither aims at death.

"It is essential to emphasize that these criteria refer to treatments, not to lives. We may rightly reject a treatment that is useless. But if I decide not to treat because I think a person's life is useless, then I am taking aim not at the treatment but at the life. Rather than asking, 'What if anything can I do that will benefit the life this patient has?' I am asking, 'Is it a benefit to have such a life?' If the latter is my question, and if I decide not to treat, it should be clear that it is the life at which I take aim. Likewise, we may reject a treatment on grounds of excessive burden. But if I decide not to treat because it seems a burden just to have the life this person has, then I am taking aim not at the burdensome treatment but at the life. Hence, in deciding whether it is appropriate and permissible to withhold or withdraw treatment—whether, even if life is thereby shortened, we are aiming only at the treatment and not at the life—we have to ask ourselves whether the treatment under consideration is, for this patient, either useless or excessively burdensome.

"Is the treatment useless? Not, let us be clear, is the life a useless one to have, but is the treatment useless? As Dr. Orr notes—quite rightly, I think—patients 'can live in this permanent vegetative state for many years.' So feeding may preserve for years the life of this living human being. Are we certain we want to call that useless? We are, of course, tempted to say that, in deciding not to feed, we are simply withdrawing treatment and letting these patients die. Yet, as Dr. Orr also notes, these patients 'are not clearly dying.' And, despite the sloppy way we sometimes talk about these matters, you cannot 'let die' a person who is not dying. It is hard, therefore, to make the case for treatment withdrawal in these cases on the ground of uselessness. We may use those words, but it is more likely that our target is a (supposed) useless life and not a useless treatment. And if that is our aim, we had better rethink it promptly."

The article is available online here. [Posted March 2005, KAM]

27 Mar

Eugenics in America

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/27/05

New book tells the story of eugenics laws in North Carolina at the turn of the twentieth century.

In an interview on Volume 70 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Christine Rosen discusses her book Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and the eugenics laws that some states—Virginia included—passed in the early twentieth century. The laws, she explains, were used as models for the eugenics practices the Nazis regime adopted. Now a book from the University of North Carolina Press, Choice & Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, examines the eugenics laws of North Carolina and their lasting affect on the state and its members. [Posted March 2005, ALG]

14 Mar

The Truth about Harvard

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/14/05

Sure, Harvard is hard, but not the way you might think. Writing in The Atlantic (March 2005), a recent Harvard graduate reflected on what was missing from his education. Ross Douthat observes that getting into Harvard was hard. Once there "it was hard work competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars with thousands of brilliant and driven young people; hard work keeping our heads in the swirling social world; hard work fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs as college wound to a close . . . yes, all of that was heavy sledding. But the academics—the academics were another story."

Ross Douthat's "The Truth about Harvard" (The Atlantic, March 2005) exposes some not entirely surprising facts about one of America's most respected credentialing agency. After some anecdotes and analysis about the origins of grade inflation, Douthat looks at the effects of postmodern academic theory on the humanities. "The retreat into irrelevance is visible all across the humanities curriculum," judges Douthat. "Philosophy departments have largely purged themselves of metaphysicians and moralists; history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and microhistory. In the field of English there is little pretense that literature is valuable in itself and should be part of every educated person's life, rather than serving as grist for endless academic debates in which every mention of truth is placed in sneering quotation marks."

Douthat then looks at the Core Curriculum, a program that one might hope retains some of the content and confidence of a traditional liberal arts curriculum. But the Core is so loosely defined and governed that it gives equal weight to peripheral questions as it does to central ones. Douthat cites as an example a history course entitled "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71: A Self-Debate." Under Harvard's system, such a class fulfills the history requirement, and may thus turn out to be the only history class taken by a student. "It seems deeply disingenuous, at best, to suggest that in the development of a broadly educated student body the study of Castro's regime carries the same weight as, say, knowledge of the two world wars, or the French Revolution, or the founding of America. (During my four years at Harvard the history department didn't offer a single course focusing on the American Revolution.)"

The rationale for this system is suggested in the Harvard course catalogue, which explains that "the Core differs from other programs of general education. It does not define intellectual breadth as the mastery of a set of Great Books, or the digestion of a specific quantum of information . . . rather, the Core seeks to introduce students to the major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education."

As Douthat exegetes this, developing a knack for the "historical approach" is more valuable than actually knowing anything about history. The results for individual students and for society are tragic. "A Harvard graduate may have read no Shakespeare or Proust; he may be unable to distinguish Justinian the Great from Julian the Apostate, or to tell you the first ten elements in the periodic table (God knows I can't). But one need only mention 'Mass Culture in Nazi Germany' or 'Constructing the Samurai' and his eyes will light up with fond memories."

The article is available online on The Atlantic webpages. MARS HILL AUDIO Journal subscribers may wish to revisit our interviews with Susan Wise Bauer, Daniel Ritchie, Louise Cowan, and Leland Ryken to compare Harvard's views about the goals of liberal arts education with those of our guests. [Posted March 2005, KAM]

13 Mar

The Embryo Question

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/13/05

Writers for The New Atlantis consider the question of destroying embryos for stem cell research, setting parameters for the debate and examining the language employed in the discussion thus far.

The embryo question presents us with some of the essential dimensions and deep tensions in the American character—including the devotion to technological progress, the fidelity to biblical morality, and the belief that all human beings are created equal. In the essays that follow, the authors explore the embryo question in full, seeking to guide the current policy debate and to grapple with more fundamental questions about out [sic.] politics, our ideals, and our humanity.

So reads the introduction to a three-part feature published in the Fall 2004/Winter 2005 edition of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. The feature, titled The Embryo Question, contains articles by Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, Eric Cohen, Leon R. Kass, Yuval Levin, and Amy Laura Hall. It identifies terms and analogies employed in the debate about whether or not human embryos should be destroyed for stem cell research, explicating and disclosing weaknesses in the arguments of those in favor while establishing a strong case in opposition. In the first two sections of the feature George, Lee, and Cohen discuss the framing of the debate and what is at stake in how it is framed. Section III finds Kass, Levin, and Hall responding, in turn, to Cohen's article in section II.

In the first article of The Embryo Question, Acorns and Embryos, George and Lee explain that the debate about using stem cells from human embryos for research purposes is couched in language that clouds the issues at stake. The controversy is about the ethics of deliberately destroying human embryos in order to harvest their stem cells. The main question of the debate, therefore, should not be: should there be embryonic stem cell research? but: is it unjust to kill members of a certain class of human beings—those in the embryonic stage of development—to benefit others? Along the way to answering the latter question in the affirmative, the authors dissect an analogy that many advocates of research on stem cells harvested from destroyed embryos tout in order to justify their position: that embryos are to humans as acorns are to oak trees, and that since there is no moral outrage over the destruction of acorns, neither should there be any over the destruction of embryos. George and Lee demonstrate how the analogy fails and conclude their essay by exhorting biomedical science to remain faithful to the moral norm against killing some human life in the effort to bring healing to other human life.

Cohen, in The Tragedy of Equality, also protests the way the debate is framed for the public; he contends it ought not to be portrayed as a clash between religion and science. Putting the debate in these terms, he writes, makes it far too easy to presume that religious opposition to the practice is irrational and that the case for it is rational, grounded in the best scientific evidence available. The complex truth is quite the opposite, he states. After explaining why this is the case he claims that such destruction of human life undermines one of the foundational principles of democratic states: that all human life is equal and ought to be treated thus. The state would be cannibalizing its principle of equality, he writes, if it allowed embryos to be destroyed for stem cell research.

Section III, titled Equality Reconsidered, begins with Kass's response to Cohen. Kass spends the greater portion of his essay, Human Frailty and Human Dignity, outlining and summarizing Cohen's. Cohen portrays the embryo debate as a story about the fate of the democratic idea of equality hanging in the balance as society considers sacrificing it to serve the health of some. While Kass shares Cohen's moral sensibilities about destroying embryos for research, he diverges from Cohen in portraying the cultural conflict surrounding the debate as a conflict about equality; it is better understood, he writes, as a tension between concern for human frailty and dignity. He explains that, while he is not certain that a human embryo is morally equivalent to older people, he is certain that embryos deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and awe, especially since all people were once embryos. Dignity and prudence ought to restrain the current generation from using the seeds of the next generation to its advantage, he concludes.

Levin also amends Cohen's article, but for reasons different from Kass's. In The Crisis of Everyday Life he states that Cohen gives two extreme responses to the practice of destroying embryos for stem cell research, neither of which is attractive. Cohen implies that society can either abandon its commitment to equality by sacrificing embryos for the sake of others, or, in order to uphold the truth that all humans are equal, it can martyr its sick by not developing cures for them through such research. Levin notes that these options may not be the only two available, and he encourages practices that would allow society to capitalize on modern scientific progress—such as research on stem cells taken from adults—without sacrificing moral principles.

Finally, Amy Laura Hall takes The Tragedy of Equality as a starting point for considering what it means to affirm that all humans are equal. In her article, "In What Sense Equal?" she examines three ways (upheld by Scripture and the western canon) in which humans are equal, and describes how one way is particularly helpful for bioethics and thinking about stem cell research. Equality through redemption, she explains, is the idea that all people suffer and all are shown mercy; thus, because one has been shown mercy, one ought to extend it to others. The Kantian idea of equality—that people deserve equal treatment because of their rationality—is the framework on which bioethics is loosely based, writes Hall, and it stands in need of a supplement. If not supplemented with other reasons for treating people equally, she states, it could encourage the destruction of human life that is without rational capacities and that seems extraneous. Complementing the Kantian idea of equality with the idea of equality through redemption would discourage the destruction of extraneous life.

The New Atlantis is a publication produced by the Ethics and Public Policy Center; for more information, visit the journal's web pages. Readers who would like to learn more about bioethics and the issues involved may wish to consult past interviews on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal; guests include Leon R. Kass, Nigel Cameron, C. Ben Mitchell, and Gordon Preece. [Posted March 2005, ALG]

14 Feb

Islam and Redemptive History

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/14/05

Most discussions about Islam and Christianity since 9/11 have been conducted as exercises in comparative ethics: here's what Christianity teaches (and how Christians have behaved) and here's what Islam teaches (and how Muslims have behaved). But what if the Christian account of history and God's sovereignty is true: What does the magnificent reality of Islam mean?

Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, I have read dozens of articles that examine and compare Christian and Islamic teaching on war, peace, violence, and justice. As helpful as these have been, I have been waiting for a long time to see a Christian theologian reflect on the theological meaning of the phenomenon of Islam. When theologian Peter J. Leithart mentioned on his blog that he had recently completed an article on this subject and was looking for a place to publish it, I wrote and asked if he would let me see it. He graciously obliged, and eventually assented to my suggestion that we make the "Mirror of Christendom" available on our web pages. Readers who find his framework perplexing are encouraged to read his provocative book Against Christianity (Canon, 2003), which argues against Christianity as an abstraction or philosophy or worldview in favor of the Church as a concrete historical reality. It is in light of his assumption that the Church should be richly ramified in the world that Leithart suggests some avenues of understanding the providential purposes of the historical reality of Islam. [Posted February 2005, KAM]