Flashback: The Politics of Death

In anticipation of the shutdown of Apple’s MobileMe service, I am re-posting some of my old blog entries before they become harder to retrieve.

This entry was originally posted on July 3, 2004.

About two or three years ago, I was channel surfing and I landed on Comedy Central. They were showing someone’s standup routine. (I think it might have been Bill Maher, but don’t hold me to that. It does sound like something he’d say at any rate). This comedian was somewhat political, and he pointed out that he was in favor of the death penalty, pro-choice, and pro-euthanasia. The punchline? “I’ll kill anything.”

All humor aside, I agree with those three positions. If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, I consider this position only more consistent than someone who would be either in favor of abortion and against euthanasia, or the other way around.

There are three potential positions that someone could have, and be consistent about it: first is to be opposed to all three. second is to be in favor of the death penalty but opposed to abortion and euthanasia. third is to be opposed to the death penalty and in favor of abortion and euthanasia. My rationale behind these being the only truly consistent position, comes from the fact that one of these three combinations could consistently respond to the question that is at the heart of all three: whom are we punishing when we kill someone? We could say the person we’re killing, the friends and family of the person we’re killing, both, or neither.

So allow me to elaborate as to why I take these positions. In 1977, the US Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, or capital punishment as it is euphemistically referred, is neither cruel nor unusual punishment, and therefore not unconstitutional. This makes sense to me. Unusual? We’re all going to die. Some of us violently, others peacefully. Cruel? One of the more interesting arguments against the death penalty is that it is not cruel enough, considering the scope and breadth of the crime one must commit in order for it to be an option. Timothy McVeigh comes to mind as being someone who deserved the death penalty, and the prosecution said so in no uncertain terms in their closing arguments at his trial. I think one of the most cruel aspects of the death penalty is that the condemned knows exactly when, where, and how he or she is going to die (and I’m sure that there are some people out there who would like to know that…)

Is there room for reform within our criminal justice system, specifically as it pertains to the death penalty? Absolutely. The cards are stacked too much against the poor and ethnic minorities, and there are some people on death row who should probably be serving life in prison and not waiting for their execution day because of their crimes, but overall, if I were on a jury hearing a death penalty case, if I were convinced that execution is the best way to go for that criminal, I could vote to execute.

Abortion. I am pro-choice primarily because of what I generically consider a “none-of-your-business” attitude. Quite frankly, if a pregnant woman wishes to have an abortion, and I am not the father, I don’t believe I have the right to tell her what she should or should not do, unless she asks my opinion. (And if I am the father, I would hope that she does ask my opinion, otherwise I think I would know exactly where I stand with her…) All things considered, we should work to reduce the number of abortions first and foremost by reducing the number of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies.

The religious right keeps talking about the so-called “culture wars,” and this all started with the abortion debate. The debate, ironically, doesn’t exist anymore because neither side is much willing to listen to the other side. Both sides boil down to bumper sticker slogans which, although well-meaning, don’t contribute much to the debate. My favorite bumper sticker in this debate is, simply: “Against abortion? Don’t have one.”

The sad truth of the matter is, considering the current political climate, abortion will not go away. I would love to see the day, though, when it becomes less of an issue than it is now. A pervasive argument against banning abortions, is the one that says that they will continue to happen, legal or not. As long as they are legal, we can at least protect the mother’s life. Probably true. I wonder how far away medical science is from coming up with a procedure that is at least as safe to the mother as abortion, but which does not actually kill the fetus? A situation where the fetus can either be frozen or implanted into a willing surrogate and brought to term. Kind of like a pre-birth adoption. It won’t eliminate the entire abortion debate, but it will so drastically redefine the debate that maybe — just maybe — compromise on what’s left over is possible.

Euthanasia. For the first time in as long as I can remember, this political/death issue is the one that is being most hotly debated, over and above the other two. There are two primary reasons for it: the first is a woman from a town near me, but who lies in a “persistent vegetative state” in Florida, named Terri Schiavo, and the second is an Oscar-nominated movie starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank, called Million Dollar Baby.

he opponents of euthanasia tend to make two arguments: the first is playing god, and the second is the slippery-slope argument, as if to say, “it’s too hard to draw the line on what is and is not an acceptable place to allow a patient to request to be killed.”

Playing god? Is allowing a terminally ill, braindead, or otherwise being-in-serious-pain patient to die any more “playing god” than any machines that are designed solely to keep them alive?

Drawing the line? I can accept that patients want to die all the time. I would think that any time there can be no marked improvement in a condition that will (or would) ultimately kill them (regardless of whether it’s left untreated), we should at least give some degree of serious thought to what their wishes might be, even if those wishes involve a hastening of their demise. With some diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and any inoperable and metastatic cancer, the patient should by default be allowed to die on their own terms.

The Terri Schiavo case is an interesting ethical one. We have a woman who is not comatose, but rather in a “persistent vegetative state,” brought on by liver failure as a result of an eating disorder. She has been kept alive with a feeding tube for about the last fifteen years. Doctors say she has no chance for recovery. She responds slightly to certain stimuli, such as light and the sounds of the voices of friends and family. It is drawing out in the courts. On one side is her husband, who says she wouldn’t want to be kept alive like this, and on the other side is her parents, who say that she would want to be kept alive if there was any hope for improvement.

I don’t know how it is with other married couples, and I concede that I’m very close to my parents, however there are some things that I only share with my wife. Personally, I side with her husband, even if her parents might be correct when they say that he only wants to be allowed to marry his new girlfriend. (And after fifteen years, who can blame him?)

All of that being said, I am saying this as loudly and as clearly as I possibly can, to anyone willing to listen: if I ever fall into the state that Terri Schiavo is in, I would want the feeding tube removed, and I would want to be allowed to die. I think it’s disgusting that Florida governor Jeb Bush forced a law through the legislature that actually allowed him, as a representative of the state, to step in and prevent the removal of her feeding tube. Thankfully, that law has been declared unconstitutional.

The first two-thirds of the movie Million Dollar Baby are about an aging boxing trainer (Eastwood) who reluctantly agrees to train a female boxer (Swank), and brings her to a championship bout. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want me to spoil what happens in it, I strongly recommend that you skip the next paragraph.

At the championship bout, she is knocked over by her opponent in between rounds, and she lands on her stool, breaking her spinal cord and paralyzing her from the neck down. She then loses a leg to gangrene, and asks her trainer to kill her. He obliges.

Opposition to the movie is coming from two fronts: the religious right and advocates for the disabled. While I have mostly contempt for the religious right, I do have to address the arguments coming from the advocates for the disabled. The movie does not have a political agenda, unless you factor in the fact that the girl boxer has contempt for her family, who consistently attempt to cheat the welfare system. The disabled advocates are quick to point out that Christopher Reeve, for instance, lived a very full life — arguably the most activist life imaginable, causing countless additional dollars to go into research for treatment — after his horse riding accident in 1995. My counter-argument to those advocates is that they are right, but there was a time when, by his own admission, he gave serious thought to killing himself. I, personally, would never have held it against him if he had been allowed to die. That he decided to go on living is worthy of praise, but I could not have faulted him had he chosen the alternative.

Quite frankly, like abortion, a desire to allow oneself to die is a personal one. I don’t begrudge those who choose to die because I don’t know whether I’d want to keep living if my situation warranted the thought in earnest.

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