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Ethics (without the brain?)

15 Feb, 11 | by Iain Brassington

I’ve set my RSS to receive updates from Secondhand Smoke, which is one of the blogs at First Things.  It’s written by Wesley Smith, who is affiliated to the Discovery Institute, the creationist thinktank in Seattle: that gives you an indication of the sort of position he occupies – not just on bioethics, but also on global warming, socialised medicine and probably a lot else – so it’s no surprise that I disagree with a lot of what he posts.

I mention this now because I’m currently thinking about the way that euthanasia, and medical killing more generally, get represented in the media, and I’m interested in how the blogosphere handles it.  My general hypothesis is that a lot of the coverage is distorting, and is so in a way that harms public debate, and causes unnecessary fear among vulnerable groups.  (I mentioned my suspicion here a while ago.  For the record, I don’t think that the anti-euthanasia lobby is uniquely open to criticism here, either: the defenders also sometimes seem to have a habit of focusing on isolation, indignity and so on as being inescapably the overwhelming and plainly undesirable characteristics of certain lives, particularly among the old and disabled, such that not considering death is seen as bizarre.  Though I’m sympathetic to the legalisation of euthanasia, I think it’s possible to overplay a good moral hand.)

recent post by Smith is a nice illustration of what I mean (and suspect).  Writing about an boy apparently lacking a cerebellum who seems to defy medical predictions about his quality of life, he mentions another case in which

Loma Linda University in California created an organ procurement protocol to use anencephalic babies as organ donors in which physicians from around the country were asked to transfer, with parental permission, qualified infants to the Loma Linda University Medical Center where the procurement would take place.

It’s implied that these children were killed to provide organs, though there’s nothing in Smith’s article (he’s citing himself in the quotation I just gave) to substantiate this: what he says explicitly is compatible with the idea that children not expected to live were transferred to the LLMC so that they could have their organs harvested after death.  So there’s a distortion introduced from early on in the account.

But what seems really insidious is what Smith does in respect of brain-damaged children:

Throughout bioethics, we have been told that anencephalic babies–that is, children without (generally different) parts of their brains (and parts of their skulls) are not “persons,” should be considered not human, should be considered as splendid sources for organ harvesting, etc.

Noone denies that anencephalics are human (they’re born from the fertilisation of a human egg by a human sperm, with no non-human DNA introduced: why wouldn’t they be human?  Does any sane person think that that’s how speciation works?  I mean anyone outside of a creationism-promoting organisation, obviously).  Whether or not they’re persons is a different matter – but it’s a fairly mainstream position that denies that any very young child is a person.  And there are reasonable arguments for the proposition that it’s perfectly permissible to look on at least some non-persons as splendid sources for organ harvesting.  But this isn’t the same as thinking that all non-persons ought to be thought of only as sources of organs; and one could quite easily think that there are good moral reasons not to think of any of them as mere organ sources that are independent of personhood claims.  Personhood may be sufficient to generate a moral prohibition on certain kinds of resoursification – but it’s not necessary.

Anyway, the child that motivates Smith’s post was not anencephalic anyway, so it’s possible that all this was a red-herring – a distorting red herring:

This child wasn’t technically anencephalic, but in the Netherlands, he would have qualified for extermination  under the Groningen Protocol, by which Dutch doctors euthanize infants with terminal and seriously disabling conditions.  They kill infants in Belgium, too.  And no doubt, he might have been treated as a lost cause in most countries.

And this is what really annoys me.  The word “extermination” is, of course, loaded – extermination is what’s done by Rentokil, after all, and by Nazis, and it’s introduced here utterly without warrant.  That strikes me as, at best, arbitrary – but more likely to be fearmongering.

Its use also makes his claim very strange indeed.  The “but” in the first sentence is a syntactic bridge that gives the illusion of argument, but which disguises an enormous non sequitur: Smith himself admits that the child wasn’t anencephalic, which means that his earlier claims about anencephaly, “extermination” and organ-harvesting are de trop from the start.  On the other hand, if we allow that there is no non sequitur, then the word would seem to hark back to organ procurement from anencephalics.  But not even Smith has said out loud that they were murdered for their spare parts – so there’s no reason to think that a cerebellum-less child would be, and he has to admit either that he is groundlesly linking all organ procurement with deliberate extermination, or that his use of language is heavily distorting and, I’d suggest, fearmongering.

And let’s not forget that, while he doesn’t exactly lie about the Groningen Protocol, he doesn’t exactly tell the truth about it either.  The Protocol states that

For the Dutch public prosecutor, the termination of a child’s life (under age 12) is acceptable if 4 requirements were properly fulfilled:

  • The presence of hopeless and unbearable suffering
  • The consent of the parents to termination of life
  • Medical consultation having taken place
  • Careful execution of the termination
  • It’s hardly a permit for extermination.  Most importantly, it won’t permit killing if there’s no hopeless and unbearable suffering.  And since there’s no reason to link anencephaly, or the lack of a cerebellum, with such a state, there’s no reason to suppose that the Protocol would have permitted the killing of the child in the story.

    It doesn’t take long to explode the message of Smith’s post; but it’s there all the same, and that someone should have to go to the trouble of exploding it is troubling in itself.

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