(Cross) Examining Assisted Suicide

I recently had the opportunity to come on the Cross Examined Life podcast to defend the position that physician-assisted suicide should be illegal. It’s a really great new podcast, with a premise that resonates with me- improving the way we disagree. I enjoyed the conversation, and I hope you’ll check it out. You’ll have to give it a listen to get the full argument, but I had a couple of thoughts after we spoke.

First off, I wish I’d emphasized more that my position is primarily concerned with protecting the rights of vulnerable people. That’s why I hold it, and that’s why it’s important. It’s easy to wander off into abstract ideas and lose the thread of why the ideas and principles matter–in this case, they matter to the people who will be harmed if this principle is discarded. A common argument is that assisted suicide ends an individual’s suffering, and it’s simply nobody’s business how someone chooses to deal with their suffering. So I want to strongly reinforce this point: this is emphatically NOT about “morality” in terms of “I think it’s distasteful, so YOU shouldn’t do it.” Rather, it’s about morality in terms of not harming or abandoning vulnerable people in their time of need.

Looking back, I would have organized my case a little bit differently. Instead of presenting separate arguments, I realize that I might rather have presented all the later points as evidence of what goes wrong when you violate the first one. That would have reflected my thinking more clearly, and would have kept me from getting tied up like I did in questioning whether someone is competent to make this or that decision. Rather than debating whether freedom from coercion and pressure is itself a reason to make assisted suicide illegal, I should have made clear from the start that the problem of coercion is something which emerges from the violation of the fundamental principle; that is, that we shouldn’t be killing people anyway.

I also would have tried to more clearly express the argument that life has intrinsic value, because that’s what’s underneath the whole thing. If the basic principle that “life is worth defending” is itself in question, then none of the rest matters. I think that might have sparked a bit of productive discussion. Why is life worth defending? Why do we all generally accept that we shouldn’t kill people, or that suicide is sad? These questions need to be answered before we can really explore whether or when exceptions ought to be made (e.g., we shouldn’t kill people, except in circumstances X and Y when rule Z takes priority, etc.).

At the end, I said that the conversation gave me some things to ponder further. What I had in mind was one of Chris’s very first questions, asking about the role of autonomy. As someone with a tendency towards libertarian thinking, this gave me pause. In the conversation, I stayed mostly grounded in the argument that virtually everyone agrees that matters of life and death are an appropriate place for government regulation. One can make “personal autonomy” a high priority and still believe there’s a place for laws addressing whether or not it’s ok for us to kill each other.

Upon further reflection, I think I’d flesh out an additional point. I briefly touched on this, then moved on quickly. But the question on the table isn’t actually about autonomy; that is, about someone’s individual actions and choices. We weren’t talking about whether suicide is ok or should be legal; I’d give a different answer to that question. We were considering assisted suicide- should it be legal for a doctor to give someone, in a moment of despair, a way to harm themselves. “Should an individual be able to do what he wants?” is a different question than, “should we call ‘causing death’ a form of medical care?” The principle of autonomy applies to the first, but not as strongly to the second, I would argue.

One last thing. I should have done a better job of acknowledging how blurry the line between “allowing death” and “causing death” can look, that’s absolutely fair criticism. If I could go back, I’d grant that the two things don’t always appear all that distinct on the surface. That said, I would still push back on the point. Here’s why: I think people everywhere, in all cultures, widely recognize this distinction. If someone holds that there is not really an important difference between a disease taking someone’s life, versus a person taking it, then that’s the view that requires defending.

Please give the podcast a listen and a share, and let me know what you think!

To go deeper into this topic, many disability-rights and elder-abuse prevention organizations have great resources. These types of groups are almost unanimously opposed to legalizing assisted suicide, which should carry some weight in itself.

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

Patients Rights Council

American Association of People with Disabilities


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Conservative and pro-refugee

I really enjoyed this piece at Arc of the Universe, which may be a happy new find. It describes itself as a blog “where secular and religious meet in conversation about global justice.”

In any case, from the piece by contributor Michael Griffin:

“…the policies of this week, in particular the executive order of Friday, deserve robust condemnation—especially from Catholics.  We are the tradition of faith and reason. Not only is this order unchristian but it is also irrational. Of the terror attacks that have occurred in the U.S. since September, 11, the number of perpetrators from the list of banned countries is precisely zero.  Why was Saudi Arabia not on this list, or Russia, both of whom have been home to terror perpetrators in the U.S.?

While there are more eloquent ways to state the opposition to this ban, I think that the faith and reason test is simple and clear.  Indeed, if our Thomistic tradition teaches us that grace perfects nature, then what we are seeing is how irrationality perverts faith.  And indeed, I dare say that some outside of our Catholic, pro-life fold are waiting to hear from more of us about why our faith—faith in the person and teachings of Jesus—is not quite as offended by the present actions as it was by the previous administration.”

Please go read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.

I’m interested in the fact that conservatives (whatever that means any more) are so willing to defend this action. Partisanship isn’t surprising, of course, but I don’t think this is a conservative solution.

I consider myself a conservative because I resist throwing out things that work; I think it’s quite proper to acknowledge the value in tradition, in something that developed for a reason and has stuck around for a reason (see: Electoral College). I’m concerned, always, with unintended consequences of big changes. For example, while I argued against Obamacare and thought it was a terrible idea, I’m also deeply worried about the consequences of a reckless repeal. And, American conservatism tends toward small-government, federalist, subsidiarity-based solutions that I will almost always prefer to big-government bureaucracies.

I’m instinctively skeptical when someone tries to sell me on some Big Thing that will Fix All My Problems. So, I’m as skeptical when President Trump tells me that keeping out all the Iraqis will keep me safe, as I am when the cashier at Best Buy tells me about the extended service plan for my printer.

It’s absolutely true that there have been no recent fatal attacks in the U.S. by people from these countries. Every fatal act of terrorism in the U.S. recently has been committed by a U.S. citizen or legal resident. While there have been three attacks in recent years by immigrants from these countries, none were fatal–and in two of the three examples, the attacker was brought over legally at the age of two. Now, that’s not nothing. And this list of countries is, in fact, totally defensible for other reasons. But the facts call for a serious process of vetting visa applicants and refugees. The facts do not automatically justify a total shutdown of travel from these countries. The difficulty must be weighed against our moral obligations, which are also not nothing–both to refugees in need of help in places like Syria, and to already-vetted travelers who may now be separated from their families and lives.

What stuck out for me in the above quote was, “if our Thomistic tradition teaches us that grace perfects nature, then what we are seeing is how irrationality perverts faith.” St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” that is, God does not have to change who we are or violate our will in order to save us; rather, he invites us to allow him to restore what is lost and broken in us. We remain always free, always ourselves, while pursuing what is good. It’s an interesting observation that, conversely, one must ignore the rational case for welcoming refugees in order to ignore the religious case. If we choose to turn away from what is good, we are no longer fully free to consider the matter from the standpoint of reason, either.

None of this is to say that reasonable people can’t disagree. If one’s priority is protecting America *at any cost*, then you can make a case for these restrictions. But real people are harmed by this action, like the example given in the article; and if you include that fact, the case starts to get real shaky real fast.

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Overstating the case for AND against Trump’s travel ban

There’s an important principle to follow in rhetoric. If you overstate your case, you can be right, but you still lose the argument. Arguing beyond the facts allows your audience to assume the facts aren’t actually on your side, otherwise, you wouldn’t need to push them. This happens all the time in politics, and it’s part of why we all get so mad. We ignore the real points and focus on the overblown ones.

There’s a lot of that going on, on both sides, when it comes to this immigration executive order. I want to talk to both sides here.

“Muslim ban”

Nope. It’s really, really, not, and everybody needs to stop using that phrase, because it’s arguing beyond the facts. It’s a temporary ban on travel from 7 countries. Countries, not religions. It’s not a list of all or even most Muslim-majority countries, and–this is important–the list of 7 countries is based on national-intelligence threats as determined and already established by the Dept of Homeland Security under President Obama around a year ago. These are the 7 countries that President Obama’s national security team thought most constituted a “threat of foreign fighters.” This order does not ban any members of any religion, nor, again, does it ban travel from all Muslim-majority countries. Neither did the Obama administration base this list on Donald Trump’s business interests. This is all public record.

However, restricting travel and halting refugee resettlement on these countries while leaving the option to allow exceptions and publicly stating that Christians will get first dibs? It’s hard to argue that that doesn’t present an image of keeping Muslims out, especially after Trump’s history of fantastically irresponsible rhetoric about, yes, banning Muslim travel.

“Obama did the same thing!”

Well, sort of. In 2011, we stopped processing refugees from Iraq for six months, in order to overhaul the vetting process after finding that some terrorists had slipped through. This is precisely the same justification being given today. ABC even reported that “One Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays, two U.S. officials said.”

But this also argues beyond the facts. The difference today is, that was just refugees, not all travel–and we weren’t detaining green-card-holding U.S. residents. It seems that the rules as they pertain to permanent residents and dual-citizenship holders are still being determined, several days after the order was signed, and that is a yuge problem. The Justice Dept and DHS were apparently not included in the drafting of the order, something that could have avoided the chaos.

This is a stupid idea

I’ve long argued that refugees are not the enemy, and that despite a legitimate danger, we have a moral responsibility on the matter. This new policy feels very reactionary, as if the Paris attack had just taken place and everyone was spooked. But we’re not reacting to anything here, and as I argued at the time, being reactionary isn’t the best idea anyway. What’s happening here is that the people who thought we should have reacted a certain way, a year and a half ago, are finally getting their way. It’s delayed-reactionism. And maybe this just rubs my detail-oriented, six-sigma personality the wrong way, but it comes across as a sign of massive process issues if this idea can percolate for over a year and somehow still be a reckless, slapdash embarrassment upon rollout.

These are the questions I would ask concerning such a policy. Will it prevent terrorism? (Nope.) Will it reduce the risk of terrorism? (Probably not much.) Will it harm people? (Yep.)

The best I’ve seen Trump apologists argue for this is that it’s temporary, and necessary. Temporary just means it’s only bad for a while. And necessary? Not so fast. How many terror attacks have come from these countries? I can see taking a very good look at people immigrating from these places, but a total ban on travel, one that immediately upon enforcement harmed innocent people?

The worst argument I’ve seen is that it’s actually not nearly as bad as people thought it might be. Should we breathe a sigh of relief over a truly bad policy because the president argued for something even worse in the past? Bluntly, that justifies any bad thing you can think of, as long as you can also think of something worse. No, that’s not a reason to like this order.

Should we take a hard look at our vetting process? Yes. Should we just throw open the borders and allow anyone in? No, and we never have. We can continue to cap the number of refugees we accept, just like every other country. Even Canada. We can vet those we let in. But we figure it out, and we do it, and we do it because it’s right. This is a part of American greatness. Doing the right thing, because it’s right.

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Bad ideas, character, and American greatness

Having little kids, I think, probably gives one a slightly better understanding of how God sees all of us, if one is prone to that type of thinking. They cry when they don’t get their way. They fight over basically meaningless things. They hurt themselves and each other, sometimes out of ignorance (whether culpable or not), sometimes out of actual seeming malice. They complain WHEN THEY ARE GIVEN WHAT THEY ASKED FOR. They hold their poop in for days until it all comes out in their pants, and act like they don’t know what they could have done differently. Kids are crazy and they make us crazy.

They’re also sweet, and kind, and generous, and loving. All in a perfectly innocent, un-self-conscious way that makes it infinitely more beautiful when one offers her brand new toy to the other because he’s upset. They’re creative, and interested in everything, and they are literally the center of my life and my heart. And it makes it all the more shoot-me frustrating when they get themselves so worked up and I can’t help them. And I do wonder how often God must feel that way about us.

We hurt ourselves, and each other, doing things when we totally know better. We eat crap that makes us sick, we selfishly treat each other like objects, and we allow ourselves to become addicted to things that poison us and destroy our relationships. We’re no less stubborn at 34 than at 4, we’re just better at rationalizing it. And faced with this mess we’ve made of the world, we all come up with our own bad ideas for how to make it work, and then we end up hating each other fighting over which bad idea we should impose on everyone.

But the kindness, the love, it remains too. And this can get us through. No matter which bad idea we go with, nothing will fix anything if we’re being selfish and hating each other. No government program can solve that. At the same time, no matter what, if we all give of ourselves in love, in whatever way is before us, I don’t see any of the bad ideas ending up so bad.

The founders felt this way. John Adams, for example, said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” One can find many examples of the founding fathers arguing that the success or failure of the fledgling nation depended finally upon the character and morality of the American people, much more than the structure of government. But one quote in particular comes to mind today, apparently misattributed to de Tocqueville, but summing up the thought:

“America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Just some tired musings on the eve of yet another imposition of a bad idea.

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Why an electoral revolt is a really bad idea

How are we all supposed to get along at this point?

In a few days, the electoral college will cast its vote for President, and everyone is freaking out that they might follow the rules. I’m spooked that so many people think they shouldn’t. Because this is bigger than 2016, and bigger than Donald Trump. Our electoral process is the common ground we all agree to meet on. It may be the only common ground left at the end of this year, and that makes it pretty dang important. I don’t want Donald Trump to be president either, you guys, but in a more bigly way, I don’t want our whole system to fall apart, and that seems to be the endgame of these petitions and letter-writing campaigns and death threats going to the electors.

Put any other name in, and imagine your honest reaction to what’s going on right now. Hillary Clinton wins the election, but Republican voters are now harassing the electors to try to convince them not to elect her. Imagine the outrage. Seriously put yourself in the scene reading stories of Clinton electors getting death threats in the midst of a coordinated campaign to keep her from reaching the office she had won.

For one thing, it would confirm in the minds of many the picture they have of backwards, violent right-wingers. Keep that picture in your head, but now realize that every political stripe has backwards, violent asshats, and we all ignore the ones in our own house. Please remember that for the future. Your hats are showing.

But I digress. Because my concern isn’t the violent crazies on the fringe, it’s the millions in the middle that think an electoral revolt would be just fine. Somehow the same people have gone, in a matter of weeks, from fainting at the thought that Trump would not accept the results of the election (tearing down the foundation of our democracy!), to advocating a total rejection of the results of the election. With a pit stop mid-week to scream in protest that Trump suggested without evidence that there was voter fraud, while literally at the same time signing Jill Stein’s recount petition which suggested without evidence that there was voter fraud. On neither issue can one be standing on principle both ways. If you find yourself there, you are no longer standing on principle.

But if you’ll stick with me while I wind my way to a conclusion, a cornerstone of this blog and of my philosophy is that principle really, really matters. And this principle on this day matters a whole lot, because as I said, I fear it may be one of the last remaining bits of common ground, and if we tear it up too, I literally don’t see a future for America. A week ago we were arguing over whether or not the electoral college was a good idea any more, because it’s possible for someone to win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. What are we going to do when we all go cast our votes and end up electing someone that wasn’t even on the ballot? You can think the electoral college is a bad idea, but it at least follows rules, and we all know them. What future is there for democratic elections when we throw out the rules (and the votes!) just because people say “I don’t like the results!”?

The President of the United States isn’t King. Trump can’t do all the crazy he says, and we all know it. If you hate his policies, you have a voice, and at least three other people in the federal government that literally answer to you and will take your call. Trump didn’t make friends in this campaign, and I don’t see the Republicans giving him a lot of room to crazy, much less the Democrats (who I believe will have always been in favor of a stalwart opposition, a “party of no”, perhaps. Four legs good…). There’s also the Constitution, which despite the efforts of the last few administrations, still restricts the power of the government. I look forward to liberals remembering why that’s a good thing.

Now, the argument goes that the electoral system was designed so that chosen representatives would deliberate and select someone worthy, someone unlike Donald Trump, to keep the unruly mob from choosing a populist demagogue, someone like Donald Trump. Well, yes, frankly, that’s true. But the electoral system today has evolved and been modified. The system was also designed to keep actual people from voting for their senators, and in many cases, simply to keep actual people from voting. If you like women’s suffrage and no longer counting some people as 3/5 of a person, you should be ok with the system evolving. None of us voted for an elector based on the idea that that person was capable of wisely choosing the president. None of us even voted for an elector by name. We voted according to the rules as they stand today, having developed over time, and having been modified in response to problems that arose in the original plan.

These rules are our common ground, and having common ground is our way forward. I know, I make my jokes, I like to point out when liberals are being hypocritical and all. But my desire really is for us to move forward together. This is important. This is bigger than 2016, bigger than the next four years. This isn’t about Trump or Clinton or Kasich or What Would Alexander Hamilton Do. This is the foundation. This is where we come together, even angrily, and where we know we can angrily stomp back to in four years, but we do it together. But if we tear up this remaining common ground, we’ll have nowhere left to meet.

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