Assisted Suicide: Coming to a State Near You

I hope to have more to say on the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend this article by Herbert Hendin, M.D. Dr. Hendin’s book, Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and Assisted Suicide, is an excellent resource on the topic, the result of extensive research and multiple interviews taken while studying euthanasia practices in the Netherlands. This article provides a nice summary of his research and experience, which builds a solid case against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Washington has recently become the second state to pass an assisted suicide initiative, and, legislating from the bench, a Montana judge has ruled that man has right to assisted suicide.

This movement is on a roll, and you will want to be informed about why this is such a ghastly public policy trend.

A few highlights from the article:

Concern over charges of abuse led the Dutch government to undertake studies of the practice in 1990, 1995 and in 2001 in which physicians’ anonymity was protected and they were given immunity for anything they revealed. Violations of the guidelines then became evident. Half of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, which compromises the voluntariness of the process. Fifty percent of cases were not reported, which made regulation impossible. The most alarming concern has been the documentation of several thousand cases a year in which patients who have not given their consent have their lives ended by physicians. A quarter of physicians stated that they “terminated the lives of patients without an explicit request” from the patient. Another third of the physicians could conceive of doing so.

An illustration of a case presented to me as requiring euthanasia without consent involved a Dutch nun who was dying painfully of cancer. Her physician felt her religion prevented her from agreeing to euthanasia so he felt both justified and compassionate in ending her life without telling her he was doing so. Practicing assisted suicide and euthanasia appears to encourage physicians to think they know best who should live and who should die, an attitude that leads them to make such decisions without consulting patients–a practice that has no legal sanction in the Netherlands or anywhere else.

Assisted-suicide laws are always framed as being “compassionate” — appealing to the universal fear of dying a prolonged and painful death. Yet the unintended consequences of giving physicians the unrestricted power of life and death are often anything but:

Compassion is not always involved. In one documented case, a patient with disseminated breast cancer who had rejected the possibility of euthanasia had her life ended because, in the physician’s words: “It could have taken another week before she died. I just needed this bed.”

He also extensively studied Oregon’s experience with assisted suicide — the legislation which served as the model for Washington’s law — and found plenty of problems here as well:

Oregon physicians have been given authority without being in a position to exercise it responsibly. They are expected to inform patients that alternatives are possible without being required to be knowledgeable enough to present those alternatives in a meaningful way, or to consult with someone who is. They are expected to evaluate patient decision-making capacity and judgment without a requirement for psychiatric expertise or consultation. They are expected to make decisions about voluntariness without having to see those close to the patient who may be exerting a variety of pressures, from subtle to coercive. They are expected to do all of this without necessarily knowing the patient for longer than 15 days. Since physicians cannot be held responsible for wrongful deaths if they have acted in good faith, substandard medical practice is encouraged, physicians are protected from the con-sequences, and patients are left unprotected while believing they have acquired a new right.

The idea of assisted suicide has enormous allure in a culture of self-gratification and increasingly-shallow moral and ethical principles. Don’t be surprised when it comes your way — be prepared.

Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathological standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

Intellectual Giants, Moral Midgets

(Note: This post has been edited from the original to include citations from the original article, which is no longer available free of charge).

Amy Richard’s article on her selective fetal reduction in the NY Times Magazine (registration required) has recently been discussed on National Review Online (see also here) and elsewhere. It should be read by everyone with an interest in the abortion debate, or the general state of the culture wars in 21st century America.

Richards begins her story:

I’m 34. My boyfriend, Peter, and I have been together three years. I’m old enough to presume that I wasn’t going to have an easy time becoming pregnant. I was tired of being on the pill, because it made me moody. Before I went off it, Peter and I talked about what would happen if I became pregnant, and we both agreed that we would have the child.

I found out I was having triplets when I went to my obstetrician. The doctor had just finished telling me I was going to have a low-risk pregnancy. She turned on the sonogram machine. There was a long pause, then she said, ”Are you sure you didn’t take fertility drugs?” I said, ‘I’m positive.’ Peter and I were very shocked when she said there were three. ‘You know, this changes everything,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to see a specialist.’

My immediate response was, I cannot have triplets. I was not married; I lived in a five-story walk-up in the East Village; I worked freelance; and I would have to go on bed rest in March. I lecture at colleges, and my biggest months are March and April. I would have to give up my main income for the rest of the year. There was a part of me that was sure I could work around that. But it was a matter of, Do I want to?

I looked at Peter and asked the doctor: ‘Is it possible to get rid of one of them? Or two of them?’ The obstetrician wasn’t an expert in selective reduction, but she knew that with a shot of potassium chloride you could eliminate one or more.

Having felt physically fine up to this point, I got on the subway afterward, and all of a sudden, I felt ill. I didn’t want to eat anything. What I was going through seemed like a very unnatural experience. On the subway, Peter asked, ‘Shouldn’t we consider having triplets?’ And I had this adverse reaction: ‘This is why they say it’s the woman’s choice, because you think I could just carry triplets. That’s easy for you to say, but I’d have to give up my life.’ Not only would I have to be on bed rest at 20 weeks, I wouldn’t be able to fly after 15. I was already at eight weeks. When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It’s not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I’m going to have to move to Staten Island. I’ll never leave my house because I’ll have to care for these children. I’ll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise. Even in my moments of thinking about having three, I don’t think that deep down I was ever considering it.

At every level, Ms. Richard’s story displays the moral vacuousness of the contemporary secular mindset. First, there is the impermanence of the relationships which will bear and raise children. She never indicates any consideration of marriage to her boyfriend, either while anticipating a pregnancy or after her child is born. Then there is the casual nature of the decision to have a child. She stops the pill because of hormone-driven moodiness, nobly deciding to keep the inevitable trophy child rather than suffer the agonies of monthly menstrual misery. She never once considers the implications for her child, or the society he or she will inhabit, inherent in her decision to raise him in an intrinsically unstable and uncommitted parental relationship. Finally there is the stunning reflex decision to terminate one or more of her unborn children when the serpent jaws of a self-gratifying lifestyle arise. No thought of a moral or ethical dilemna ever crosses her mind as she clutches for the salvation of a potassium chloride syringe.

Ms. Richards sees her specialist, and relates the experience of her selective reduction:

The specialist called me back at 10 p.m. I had just finished watching a Boston Pops concert at Symphony Hall. As everybody burst into applause, I watched my cellphone vibrating, grabbed it and ran into the lobby. He told me that he does a detailed sonogram before doing a selective reduction to see if one fetus appears to be struggling. The procedure involves a shot of potassium chloride to the heart of the fetus. There are a lot more complications when a woman carries multiples. And so, from the doctor’s perspective, it’s a matter of trying to save the woman this trauma. After I talked to the specialist, I told Peter, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ He replied, ‘What we’re going to do.’ He respected what I was going through, but at a certain point, he felt that this was a decision we were making. I agreed.

When we saw the specialist, we found out that I was carrying identical twins and a stand alone. My doctors thought the stand alone was three days older. There was something psychologically comforting about that, since I wanted to have just one. Before the procedure, I was focused on relaxing. But Peter was staring at the sonogram screen thinking: Oh, my gosh, there are three heartbeats. I can’t believe we’re about to make two disappear. The doctor came in, and then Peter was asked to leave. I said, ‘Can Peter stay?’ The doctor said no. I know Peter was offended by that.

Let us not forget about the professional, clinically detached physician who delivers the death syringe to carefully selected unborns. The lifesaving miracle of high resolution ultrasound and fetal intervention selecting those twins whose crime was being several days too young.

Despite the high-minded rhetoric about “choice” in the abortion debate, at its heart abortion is about unfettered sex, or in the larger moral context, the pursuit of self-gratifying behavior while refusing to accept its inevitable consequences. Spiritual principles, much like the laws of physics, cannot be violated without consequences. No matter how fervently I believe I can fly, flapping my arms while jumping off tall buildings will always make me an unsuitable client for my life insurance company. Violating spiritual laws results in even more pervasive effects, since the spiritual tsunamis roll not merely through our own lives, but those of everyone we touch, both near and far. Unlike the violation of physical laws, however, the consequences are far more easily denied, rationalized, and minimized when they are in the realm of the spirit.

In the secular mindset, sexual “freedom” trumps all; the death of the unborn fruits of this behavior is not considered too high a price to pay. Any moral qualms about the ghastly consequences to the child can be mitigated by redefining language – an unborn child becomes a “fetus”, a “product of conception” – to move us a few steps farther away from the uncomfortable and convicting truth. Then we change the subject to a more defensible arena: abortion is about “freedom”, and “choice”, and “women’s health”, and “rights” – all straw-man targets far harder to attack than the crumbling and indefensible edifice at the core of the issue: snuffing out a unique, defenseless human being to promote and enable a self-centered, self-gratifying way of life. Amy Richards has given us a rare, inadvertently honest look into the dark soul of secularism, and its holy sacrament of abortion. We should look long and hard, and never forget, what the inevitable outcome of contemporary secularism will produce: shallow, empty humanity, exterminating our young to preserve our shopping preferences.

Our culture is advanced beyond the wildest imaginations of those even a century ago. We clone sheep; take stunning pictures of Saturn from its rings; perform surgery robotically; retrieve information in seconds with web browsers that formerly took years to acquire, if ever. We as a society are intellectual giants in history. Yet as our knowledge increases exponentially, our wisdom withers: we are just as truly moral midgets.