Posts Tagged ‘542’

Anencephalics, Humanity, and Respect

July 28th, 2010 6 comments

For awhile, I wish I’d never written on anencephaly. My first clue should have been that I didn’t know how to describe these unfortunate children, born without most of their brains. Since one of my points was to raise the issue of what counts as humanity, I didn’t want to answer my own question by calling them “babies”; at one point, I used the clinical term entity, which drew a criticism from Andrew Sullivan (one that I now largely accept, as I’ll soon discuss).

Several WordinEdgewise readers commented on the issue, with most taking the position that anencephalics prove the point that “human” is really just a category that we use for our own purposes; by creating anencephalics, the universe is reminding us that it doesn’t care about our efforts at taxonomy. One reader invited me and others to take a look at some of the images of anencephalics, and I did. I had planned on posting a couple of these here, but decided that it could too easily be taken as a kind of pornography. Those who are curious about exactly what these tragic babies look like can go to Google images.

I’d really just wanted to raise the issue in the context of the late-term abortion controversy so respectfully unfolding over at the Daily Dish. But the whole discussion has been valuable to me, and I hope to others, as I sort through the intractable complexity of these issues that are so central to our humanity. One immediate result was a conversation with my spouse, David, who is the one in the family with true empathy. He was astonished that I’d even raised the question of the humanity of anencephalics, uninterested in the logical case I was able to build for that possible conclusion. Eschewing metaphysical terms like “soul,” he simply stated that these babies were entitled to respect.

It’s really impossible for me to argue with that. I realized that part of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.

But there’s more to it than our connection with other species. Logic only gets one so far. I’m not religious, but perhaps the combination of being a bit older and having kids of my own makes me realize that membership in the human race, defined broadly enough to include anencephalics, is important — even if I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired. (Ask Edmund O. Wilson, or some other brilliant and delightfully controversial sociobiologist.)

And every one of us is entitled to respect, which is at least to say serious consideration in any moral decision. That doesn’t necessarily lead to any particular conclusion; it may be that respecting the interest of an anencephalic, or other grossly deformed fetus, is to abort. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree here, and it also seems to me apparent that the humility of uncertainty requires giving the woman carrying this life — who, it should go without saying, is also entitled to respect — the right to resolve these impossible  questions according to her best judgment.

I still don’t believe in the “soul,” or any such dreamed-up construct. But there’s a kind of poetry of the shorthand in the term, as it captures something vital about our shared humanity. As long as it’s not used as a trump card, it can be used to express the ineffable.


July 27th, 2010 1 comment

Since I posted yesterday on my puzzlement over Andrew Sullivan‘s unwillingness to support late-term abortions despite his obvious and eloquent empathy, he’s continued to post heart-stopping testimonials from readers about their own experiences. Then I was brought up short by his just-issued post:

“A reader writes:

The posts from real women who have had to ponder and in some cases have late-term abortions has really changed my thinking.  It may be the early term abortions that are most morally problematic, not the late term ones that arise under the most excruciating of circumstances.  My own feeling is that our moral duty is to agonize and struggle over the serious choices we make, not always to make the usually unknowable “right” choice.  By this standard, the women you have posted have more than done their duty.  I would not want to second guess them.

Thank you for posting these messages, and especially thanks to the people who wrote them and were willing to have them posted.  Just as gays coming out and being known destigmatizes you and them, getting these abortion stories out takes away the cartoon quality of the whole abortion debate.  There just is very little black and white in the world and loads of gray.

“My feelings entirely.”

The blogosphere is often seen — sometimes caricatured — as thousands of loud partisans screaming at each other, with few listening to what others are saying. Read over the last few days of the Daily Dish, especially on this abortion issue, and be heartened.

Originally published on June 3, 2010

Categories: abortion Tags: ,

Certainties? If Only

July 26th, 2010 2 comments

Responding to my first post on the subject of late-term abortions, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with me on anencephalic fetuses (i.e., those whose brains will not develop to enable cognition, and most of whom will die shortly after birth). In the context of questioning his opposition to late-term abortions even in such cases, I had asked whether anencephalics are “human” in a morally relevant sense. After a long quote from me (see the earlier post), here’s his response:

“I am just aware that another human life is at stake here and I find describing such infants as “entities”, as Culhane does, misses an essential fact about them: their soul and their humanity. Our view of what is human “in the sense that matters to me” is where we differ. From reading the emails, it seems the mothers are actually closer to my conflicts than Culhane’s certainties.”

Yeah, I did describe them as “entities,” recognizing of course the response it would likely (and with some justification) elicit. But I did so because to have referred to them as “babies” or “humans” would have begged the very question I was seeking to raise, somewhat in the spirit of a thought experiment: What does it mean to be human? I don’t know, and I’m not even “certain” that even these most tragic figures shouldn’t have at least some rights. But why? What makes us human? Should we accord rights to anencephalics even if we decide, pace Sullivan, they’re not human in some morally relevant sense? If so, why? And, right to the point, should these rights outweigh those of the mother who makes the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy under such circumstances?

These complex issue vex moral philosophers, and I make no claim to certainty. So, to the extent that my point was presented syllogistically, I went further than I should have.

On the subject of certainty, though, what about Sullivan’s citing of the “fact” that humans have souls? And their humanity, while it would likely be debated by fewer people, isn’t a “fact” either, but a proposition in need of argument. Otherwise it’s an article of faith (yes, that kind) — take it or leave it.

Let me end this on a more conciliatory note: After yesterday’s post, I continued reading the many Dish entries on the issue; as I said earlier today, I was taken aback by the stories of the women who’d undergone late-term abortions and by Sullivan’s obviously  sympathetic view of their situation. That remains true. Whatever our disagreements about  abortion (in the abstract or otherwise), the Dish has contributed an important element to the often dispiriting debate: nuance.

Beginnings of Life, Impossible Issues

July 24th, 2010 4 comments

I’ve got two somewhat related topics to discuss today. Let’s start with the unpleasant subject of late-term abortions: On Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” last night,1 Andrew Sullivan said that he was moved by the tragic testimonials of those who’d had such abortions when faced with the prospect of giving birth to seriously disabled children, some of whom were destined to live very short, painful lives. Yet virtually in the same sentence, he added that he opposes late-term abortions; he later reiterated that statement in the Daily Dish, in the most sympathetic way I’ve ever read:

“I am immensely grateful to those readers who have shared such personal, painful experiences with such candor and open hearts. I have to say that I remain somewhat shaken by the emails…. They reminded me of the human beings behind these tragedies, and forced me to reassess my own certainties and beliefs. I still cannot in good conscience support these abortions; but I can offer my profound gratitude for the readers who have forced this blogger to see things I had not fully grasped so keenly before; and to return to them respect and empathy in the particulars, even while we may disagree in the abstract.” (emphasis added)

I’m not clear as to whether he believes that such abortions should in all cases be illegal, or that he can’t support them morally. In either case, though: Why? Why doesn’t that empathy, so eloquently expressed, translate into a change in the “abstract”?

Let’s take the most extreme case, as the statement in opposition isn’t qualified in any way: A woman is to give birth to an anencephalic, a (human?) being without a functioning brain, or perhaps with nothing but a brain stem. What justifies the abstract position against abortion in this case? We’re talking about an entity that will live for only a few hours, often, and which isn’t human in the sense that matters to me from the point of view of moral philosophy: as a rights holder. Without any capacity for functioning beyond the most primitive, the anencephalic can’t be distinguished from other species to which we afford far less sympathetic (sentimental?) treatment.  I do think the cases are different, somehow, but it’s hard to say why. Is this tragic being one of us? Are we so clear about that to oppose a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that will have this result, with the visual image of this unfortunate being likely to be seared into her brain forever?

To his credit, Sullivan acknowledged that in some of these cases the women’s lives will also be placed at risk. Yet his position was stated without an exception to cover such cases, thereby placing him beyond even those who favor legislation prohibiting late-term abortions, where such exceptions are routine. (I’d welcome a contrary clarification, of course.)

On the subject of tragic lives, what should the law do about a sperm bank that negligently fails to screen its donors for various kinds of genetic abnormalities, and then sells the “product” to a woman whose child then ends up seriously disabled? I’m about to be interviewed on this very subject (by WHYY, the local Philadelphia affiliate of NPR) later this afternoon. The woman’s claim, which likely would have focused on the increased expenses of raising and caring for such a child, was barred by the statute of limitations, but her daughter — now a teen with serious mental disabilities — is able to sue, as the statute doesn’t start to run against kids until they achieve majority.

But what are the child’s damages? Her “choices” were this life, or none. Can she sue for something called “wrongful life”? Most states say no, and go all metaphysical in the knees: “It’s impossible to weigh even an impaired life against the inky void of utter non-existence, only God knows, etc.” Is this child a “defective product”? What a horrible thing to say, to think. But if she can’t raise a claim, where’s the accountability?

As a parent of young twins with my own difficult story to tell (but I’m not going to), all of this makes me uneasy. How do we respect life without being (effectively, if not intentionally) punitive?

Originally published on June 2, 2009

  1. The link will take you to the video, too.

Operation Brainwash

June 1st, 2009 No comments

There’s so much flying around about the murder of Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors left who would perform late-term abortions, that one hesitates to weigh in. But here’s a telling piece of context from Mary Mapes, writing for Huff Post on the tactics of Operation Rescue, the rabid anti-abortion vengeance strike force that protested at Tiller’s Wichita clinic. In 1991, Mapes covered the group’s “Summer of Mercy,” which took its vile road show to the clinic:

“[T]hey were bullies.

“In 1991 and until his murder, Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in this country who performed late-term abortions. Despite what Operation Rescue claimed, none of his clients were ending pregnancies on a whim. None of them wanted to be there.

“Each case was a tragedy — a much anticipated child discovered to have only a partially formed head, a baby that was dying in the womb and had to be delivered, a child with medical problems so profound as to be unimaginable, a diagnosis that meant a child’s life outside its mother’s body would be both brief and brutal.

“Tiller’s clients often included couples who had been hoping to become parents but had their hearts broken late in pregnancy when they received horrifying medical news about their much-wanted babies.

“These people got no mercy from Operation Rescue.”

“They were hounded and harassed, shoved and shouted at on the most heart-breaking day of their lives. In order for patients to make it to their appointments, clinic supporters had to coordinate each woman’s arrival with walkie-talkies. They shielded the patient by forming a flying wedge of bodies that rushed through the crowd to escort her into the building.

“I watched one woman sobbing as she and her husband were helped into the clinic. Her tears went unnoticed by the hundreds of protestors surrounding her who shrieked and wailed and tried to trip the people escorting her to the door.”

I wonder how many of the protesters had suffered through such a tragedy of their own. A good guess would be “zero.” Lots of empathy for a developing life — even those that had no chance of developing, or or surviving — but none for the women and families that were actually dealing with the deepest kind of tragedy. It’s only that kind of skewed view that might have led Tiller’s murderer to have shot him in church, with his wife in attendance and singing in the choir. Left behind: four kids and a host grandchildren, in addition to his grieving wife.

As is its custom when such tragedies occur, Operation Rescue is expressing its obligatory and wholly insincere regret. But don’t expect the incendiary rhetoric to stop. Worse, expect the violence to continue. This just in from one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers, a former protester:

“Email newsletters from these people — not just the higher ups — spoke of Tiller being guilty of ‘blood libel’, aborted fetuses’ ‘blood crying out for vengeance’, “death mills”, etc. These people not only spoke the language of the Old Testament but saw themselves as part of its narrative. They are Jonah warning Ninevah (Wichita) prophesizing about its wickedness (Tiller’s clinic). They are David up against Goliath (Tiller). There were endless calls for this ‘atrocity to end’ and that ‘abortion in Wichita will end when the Church of Jesus Christ decides it will end’. The radicalism seemed to endlessly feed back on itself.

“This had been going on for years now. When these people said that Tiller’s practices must be ‘brought to an end’ or whatever, I truly believe that the vast, vast, vast majority of them (including the OR president, whom I’ve talked to about this before) do not have homicide on their minds. However, it doesn’t matter. Operation Rescue or Bill O’Reilly do not qualify every statement about Tiller with a parenthetical stating ‘oh, by the way, killing him is not the way to stop him’ for obvious reasons. But even if they did, they can’t stop someone from thinking that more drastic measures are ‘necessary’.”

There’s a further, terrible irony in all of this. Christina Page offers some compelling facts: As abortion rates declined during the Clinton years, violence against those provide or are associated with abortion services spiked. During the comforting years of the Bush Administration (in this one limited sense only!), violence basically disappeared. Now, it’s back. The rise in violence during Democratic administrations can’t be linked to increases or decreases in the number of abortions. Indeed, the relationship looks to be quite the inverse. No, the incidence of violence can be explained only by the ability of nutcase organizations to fire up their supporters by attacking the pro-choice views of Clinton and Obama. In short, the number of abortions isn’t what drives the violence, it’s the politics.

Operation Rescue and similar organizations have much to answer for. But don’t expect them to.

Governor Baldacci’s Journey

May 6th, 2009 No comments

Here’s how marriage equality came to Maine:

Neighboring states began to recognize marriage equality. In two cases (Massachusetts and Connecticut), the recognition followed a court order. But in the other (Vermont), the legislature, after an experiment with civil unions, engaged in a lengthy and mostly respectful debate about whether such unions fully honor the loving relationships of same-sex couples. Concluding that only full marriage equality can achieve this compassionate end, the legislators last month overrode the governor’s veto, making marriage equality reality.

John Baldacci, a reasonable, centrist governor in the hard-Yankee state of Maine reflected on all of this, and on the impassioned testimony on both sides of this emotionally charged issue. He candidly stated that the goings-on in Vermont had made him reconsider his position, and that he’d moved from “no” on the issue, to undecided — in other words, persuadable. As was true about Iowa State Senator Mike Gronstal, Baldacci showed himself to be interested and fair-minded. It turns out he’s also accessible in a way that may pull you up short.

He read all emails sent to him on both sides of the issue, including a rather nasty one in favor of marriage equality. He then picked up the phone and called the sender of that email. Instead of rising to the level of anger invited by the email, he took the pot off the stove.

Here are his remarkable comments to this constituent:

“I was extremely impressed by the arguments for both sides, but especially by the proponents.

They were very respectful- I liked that they turned their backs when they disagreed.

I was truly impressed by the people who spoke for the bill.

I was opposed to this for a long time, but people evolve, people change as time goes by.”

This isn’t abortion, or religion, or any of the many issues on which a solid majority of the electorate is unlikely to change their opinions. The Governor, and millions of practical and empathetic Americans like him, are coming to see that allowing same-sex couples to marry isn’t destructive, or scary — it’s affirming and wonderful. The rock is almost at the top of the hill.

Categories: Gay Rights, Marriage Equality Tags: , , , ,

The Broadest Rule Ever Told

March 11th, 2009 No comments

The War in Iraq, the erosion of our global political capital and standing, the response to Katrina, the economic collapse — with so many delicious delicacies of abject failure ripe for ingestion (and expulsion!), it’s little wonder that other Bush Administration disasters got lost in the shuffle. It’s kind of like being the fourth Baldwin brother.

As is generally known, and as is to an extent common to all lame duck presidencies, Bush et al. pushed through a number of “midnight regulations” designed to perpetuate their policy preferences. In this case, though, many of these last-minute changes had the effect of leaving a residue not unlike the smell of Limburger cheese.

Among the most pernicious is the “Provider Conscience Act,” which isn’t a legislative “act” at all, but a rule created by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”). This rule, which went into effect on the last day of Bush’s historically inept tenure, creates an amazingly broad “safe harbor” for anyone who refuses, for reasons of “religious beliefs” or “moral convictions,” to perform any “health service” at all. (The rule applies to any entity that receives federal funds; effectively, almost all of them because of Medicare and Medicaid.)

This language could hardly be broader. HHS refused to define “health service,” or to specify what will count as valid “moral convictions.” As a practical matter, anyone who is remotely connected to any health-related procedure (because those who assist medical personnel are also covered by the exemption) can refuse to do anything that conflicts with whatever they believe. (Good luck winning a challenge to the sincerity of the “belief” after the fact.) They don’t need to refer the patient to another provider who might be willing to perform services that the patient is actually legally entitled to. Nor does the provider need to inform the patient of these “limitations” until the moment of refusal.

Before this blunderbuss rule was put into place, there were already several sources of federal legal protection for those providers who refused to provide abortion services. Over the years, parties offering, seeking, and declining to provide such services have all learned how to live with these restrictions. But this new “act” goes well beyond the context of abortion, potentially applying to birth control, as well. And not only birth control: In principle, there is no service, operation, or procedure that isn’t covered by this rule.

Does a doctor, or her assistant, oppose vaccination? Don’t vaccinate. (Will the parent take the child to another physician who will vaccinate? Perhaps not, and you can expect a public health peril to develop.) And the doctor can’t fire the person who refuses, because the law protects the “conscientious objector.”

Refusing to provide blood transfusions? Not willing to fill prescriptions for birth control drugs needed to ensure a woman’s health? These and countless other decisions are protected under this rule. HHS was impervious to arguments that this open-ended rule could lead to health care providers refusing to perform any task for any reason at all, but it’s less understandable that a law professor would agree. Yet in an installment of Radio Times (search for 12/16/08 show), St. Thomas University law professor Teresa Collett brushed aside these concerns, telling me that the law, while broad, wouldn’t lead to the kinds of problems I’ve just identified. There is no basis for her confidence.

There’s likely good news. The Obama Administration opposes the rule and has already begun the process that could repeal it.  And the Attorney General of Connecticut, one Richard Blumenthal, has sued (along with others) to enjoin the rule. But for now, the rule threatens public and private health and places providers’ whims over patient safety and autonomy.

Is it Trash Day yet?

{an acknowledgment to Dan Whitney, a student whose solid paper relating to this topic saved me research time and effort}