Care, not suicide

I spoke this morning on Fox & Friends in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent advocacy of suicide by physician for New Yorkers:

I spoke alongside Kristen Hanson, Community Relations Advocate for the Patients’ Rights Action Fund, as well as Dennis Vacco, former New York State Attorney General. Dennis Vacco successfully argued the landmark 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case Vacco v. Quill, wherein the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide exists.

Suicide by physician was made lawful in New Jersey over the weekend, which is apparently what prompted Gov. Cuomo to suggest making it legal in the Empire State, too. We’re living through a time when we think we’re cleverer than we are. Suicide is suicide.

Papal Foundation and a major grant

Matthew O’Brien argues that former Cardinal Donald Wuerl misled the Papal Foundation’s board of directors in obtaining a major grant. He also suggests that the purpose of the extraordinary grant may have been to help then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick win leniency from the Vatican as his sex abuse investigation was taking place:

In 2017, Cardinal Donald Wuerl provided false and misleading information to the board of the Papal Foundation to secure a $25 million grant for the Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI), a scandal-plagued hospital in Rome. 

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin requested this grant from the Papal Foundation in June 2017, on behalf of Pope Francis. When the Papal Foundation board met in December 2017 to discuss the grant, Wuerl made two false assertions which were recorded in the meeting minutes. First, he claimed that the Italian religious congregation that oversaw the IDI’s descent into insolvency through fraud and embezzlement (the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception) was no longer involved with the IDI. Second, he understated the amount of debt encumbering the IDI and its affiliates since the hospital group emerged from state-administered insolvency proceedings in April 2015. He painted a picture of a hospital that was experiencing momentary cash-flow problems, but was otherwise sound.

But the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception was not separated from the IDI. It retains indirect ownership today, in partnership with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, through the non-profit Fondazione Luigi Maria Monti and a limited liability subsidiary, Luigi Maria Monti, S.r.l. Together they own and operate the IDI and its affiliates. Moreover, IDI’s debt was far greater than Wuerl suggested: Though Wuerl mentioned that the IDI group owed $26 million in payables, he did not mention that it also owed $60 million in mortgage debt. Because Wuerl resisted lay board members’ requests to obtain financial statements from the IDI hospital, the Papal Foundation board had to rely upon Wuerl’s remarks about its ownership and financial situation when evaluating the $25 million grant request.

Wuerl’s actions are especially questionable in light of what he knew at the time about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s interest in securing the grant. The Holy See, Wuerl, and McCarrick—an ex-officio member of the Papal Foundation board—knew that McCarrick was at the time under investigation in New York for sexually abusing a minor, according to two sources with personal knowledge of the situation. Wuerl was aware that McCarrick stood to win leniency in his sex abuse case if the Papal Foundation secured $25 million for the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

Wuerl’s actions roiled the Papal Foundation’s donors and lay board members. Several people involved with the Foundation spoke on background for this article and shared copies of Foundation meeting minutes and legal reviews. Shortly before Wuerl resigned from the chairmanship of the Foundation’s board at the end of 2018, he orchestrated a change in its bylaws that decreased the already limited influence of lay board members by shortening their terms of service. 

Today Wuerl remains a member of the Papal Foundation’s governing board of cardinals. As one of just two American members of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, Wuerl oversaw the recent appointment of his successor to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Wilton Gregory. Gregory too serves alongside Wuerl on the Papal Foundation board.     

The sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church is not just about sex. Nor is it just about clericalism. It’s also about money. The controversy over the Papal Foundation’s $25 million grant reveals how sexual abuse, its cover-up, and money are intertwined.

The Papal Foundation was founded by Cardinal McCarrick. And the Papal Foundation’s typical grant amount is not $25,000,000, but rather $100,000.

U.S. Digital Service and taxes

Justin Elliott reports that Congress appears ready to prohibit the IRS from offering free online tax filing:

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are moving to permanently bar the IRS from creating a free electronic tax filing system. …

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee, led by Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.passed the Taxpayer First Act, a wide-ranging bill making several administrative changes to the IRS that is sponsored by Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Mike Kelly, R-Pa.

In one of its provisions, the bill makes it illegal for the IRS to create its own online system of tax filing. Companies like Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, and H&R Block have lobbied for years to block the IRS from creating such a system. If the tax agency created its own program, which would be similar to programs other developed countries have, it would threaten the industry’s profits. …

Experts have long argued that the IRS has failed to make filing taxes as easy and cheap as it could be. In addition to a free system of online tax preparation and filing, the agency could provide people with pre-filled tax forms containing the salary data the agency already has, as ProPublica first reported on in 2013. …

Intuit and H&R Block last year poured a combined $6.6 million into lobbying related to the IRS filing deal and other issues.

Devin Coldewey, meanwhile, reports the latest from the U.S. Digital Service, which exists to modernize existing federal services, websites, etc.:

The USDS is a small department that takes on creaking interfaces and tangled databases of services for, say, veteran benefit management or immigration documentation, buffing them to a shiny finish that may save their users months of literal paperwork.

… the USDS overhauled VA.gov, which is how many veterans access things like benefits, make medical appointments, and so on. But until recently it was kind of a mess of interconnected sub-sites and instructional PDFs. USDS interviewed a couple thousand vets and remade the site with a single login, putting the most-used services right on the front page. Seems obvious, but the inertia of these systems is considerable. …

These projects are often short-term, putting modern web and backend standards to work and handing the results off to the agency or department that requested it. The USDS isn’t built for long-term support but acts as a strike team putting smart solutions in place that may seem obvious in startup culture but haven’t yet become standard operating procedure in the capitol.

The work they do is guided by impact, not politics, which is likely part of the reason they’ve managed to avoid interference by the Trump administration…

“I signed up for a three month tour, and that was three years ago,” [head of the U.S. Digital Service Matt Cutts] said. “It’s really a whole civic tech movement here, there are a ton of people sort of holding hands and working together. There’s also stuff happening at the state and local level, at the international level, from the UK to Estonia and Singapore — everyone’s starting to realize this matters.”

I remember reading about the corporate lobbying effort to kill free tax filing a year or two ago, when lobbyists for the for-profit companies were trying to rally people under something like the banner of “Keep government out of the tax filing process!” I don’t think it was quite that intellectually self-defeating, but it was nearly so.

It’s a scandal that there’s a bipartisan Congressional consensus that is allowing the IRS to tie its own hands from serving Americans with a simpler filing process.

Leadership and followership

Leadership is important, but followership is more important. Laurence A. Pagnoni writes on followership:

It’s a pity that being a follower gets such a bad rap because everyone involved with fundraising out to have the opportunity–even the responsibility–to act as both decisive leader and conscientious follower. The writings of the eminent Harvard leadership professor Barbara Kellerman have helped me to develop my own intuitions concerning the dynamic and mutual influence between leaders and followers. She defines followers in two ways: First, they are subordinates who have less power, influence, and authority than their superior. This is the more conventional view; the low men on the totem pole view, as it were.

Kellerman then breaks with prevailing wisdom by asserting that followers are definable not solely by their relatively low position in the hierarchical pecking order, but also by their behavior. In other words, whether they agree to go along with what someone else wants and intends, followers have the power and the ability to exert influence within an organization. …

Effective followers can keenly monitor outcomes, question assumptions, formulate detailed proposals, keep colleagues honest and informed (including supervisors), initiate recommendations, and nurture and support coworkers and supervisors alike.

The most highly functional organizations–the ones that not only survive but flourish–tend to be led by individuals who are able to listen meaningfully to their constituents and thereby nurture their leadership traits. …

A lack of good followership is symptomatic of poor leadership…

Esse Quam Videri. To attract others to you isn’t an aesthetic issue so much as an esse issue. To attract, you’ve got to be attractive.

Corrupt by nature, but capable of virtue

Andreas Kinneging writes a primer on virtue:

Hardly anyone seriously talks about judiciousness, righteousness, courage, and temperance, let alone chastity, fidelity, and humility. Over the past five decades, these notions have become archaic, and we often no longer understand their meaning.

This disappearance is of some significance. It indicates that traditional morality, in which these virtues occupied center stage, has gradually faded and is about to disappear both from our culture and from our consciousnesses. The crucial question is, of course, how we should assess this development. Is it a curse, a blessing, or of no significance whatsoever? We cannot provide a meaningful response to that question unless we have some understanding of traditional morality. …

Although man is corrupt by nature, he is capable of acquiring virtues. He is born with a number of dangerous instincts, but he is capable of tempering and sometimes even stifling those instincts so that they do not flower into evil. He is susceptible to temptations, but he is not defenseless against them.

Perfection in this sublunary world can only be aspired to, never achieved. Even though moral perfection is beyond man’s reach he is not doomed to do all evil. He is merely inclined that way.

What counts is the battle against the evil within us. We can never win decisively, but this battle certainly need not be lost. To fight this good fight, the main requirements are a certain amount of mistrust toward oneself, a measure of willpower, and perseverance. One must beware of the enemy and show character in battle. Everything else is in the hands of God or—if you prefer—Providence or Fate. And he/that is something we cannot control; we can only hope and pray.

As we have by now surmised, there is such a strong emphasis on virtues in traditional morality because they can save man from the evil within himself. Virtues derive their meaning and significance from the presence of evil in man.

Those who do not believe in man’s inclination to evil will not assign any value to virtues, either. Those who see evil in only a few things peculiar to man will admit only a few virtues. Many of us acknowledge only one real virtue: tolerance. This mirrors the fact that in recent decades the meaning of evil, to the extent that it can be laid at man’s door, has dwindled to little more than intolerance.

The traditional understanding of evil is much broader. Evil is equivalent to the forces of chaos, dissonance, and corruption that spring from human nature. Good is equivalent to the opposite spiritual forces of order, harmony, and growth.

“Virtues derive their meaning and significance from the presence of evil in man.” Andreas Kinneging seems to preach from the same gospel that Jordan Peterson does. It’s evidence of how foreign traditional conceptions of virtue have become that Peterson is regarded by so many as a sort of radical, and that so many seem to treat his ideas as dangerous.

Tradition has become the counter-culture.

‘What is the basis of our rights?’

Matt D’Antuono writes on human rights, asking about the source of our intuition that we possess rights as human beings:

“I have the right to believe whatever I want.” “I have the right to live.” “I have the right to make choices about my body.” “I have the right to an education.” “I have the right to be free.” “I have the right to walk where I want.” “I have the right to speak my mind.”

Do we have those rights? If so, why? What is the basis of our rights?

Most often, I hear people appeal to the government or constitution. “We have rights because they are granted to us by the ruling authorities,” they say.

It is true that the government is the source of our civil rights, but if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights. A young woman in a country that does not grant the right of education to women cannot claim that her country is denying her right to an education; if the government does not grant that right, she does not have it. It would make no sense to argue for change on the basis of rights that are being denied; she can only claim that she wants to have a right that she does not have. If constitutions are the only basis of human rights, then there is no such thing as a corrupt constitution, no government that denies people their human rights.

So, when someone claims to have a right, the question is “Why?” If our rights are, in fact, inalienable, as the Declaration of Independence claims, then there is only one basis to which we can appeal: the nature of the human person. In particular, the social nature of the human creates the standard of right relationship we ought to have to one another, and thus our rights, what we can demand from others based on the duties we owe to one another because of the very essence of what and who we are.

For example, “Man by nature desires to know,” claimed Aristotle, and the full weight of experience is on his side. Our intellectual nature reveals to us our duty to refine our mind to be as excellent as it can be and to direct our intellect to the truth. As social beings, we do this together. We have a duty to learn and teach each other, and thus we have the right to an education. As a corollary, it is not true that I have the right to believe whatever I want; that would contradict the nature of my mind…

Evergreen: “…if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights…”

‘Persuading people to buy less stuff’

When I was in Charlotte in October, I got into a conversation with a manufacturer who told me that China was no longer going to be accepting a lot of our recycling. He told me this was going to be a huge problem for companies and municipalities across the country that have been spending decades trying to get people to recycle, because American recyclers wouldn’t be able to compete on cost, among other reasons. I thought of that conversation when I read Alana Semuels’s piece today:

After decades of earnest public-information campaigns, Americans are finally recycling. Airports, malls, schools, and office buildings across the country have bins for plastic bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers. In some cities, you can be fined if inspectors discover that you haven’t recycled appropriately.

But now much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.

For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.

Most are choosing the latter. …

In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. …

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff…

America’s present economy is fueled by consumption that is fueled in part by historically unknown levels of national debt.

Curtailing civil asset forfeiture

Mark Sherman reports on today’s U.S. Supreme Court Timbs v. Indiana ruling, which is a major victory for reigning in states that abuse civil asset forfeiture:

Tyson Timbs admitted he’d sold drugs, and he accepted his sentence without a fight. What he wouldn’t quietly accept was the police seizing and keeping the $40,000 Land Rover he’d had when arrested. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with him unanimously in ruling the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government.

The decision, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.

Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines “out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence” because fines are a source of revenue. …

Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, was charged in 2013 with selling $400 worth of heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest but faced no prison time. His biggest loss was the Land Rover he had bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died. Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality.

A judge in Indiana had ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana’s top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.

Here’s C.J. Ciaramella for context on this practice:

2018 was a bad year for civil asset forfeiture, the infamous practice by which police can seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime.

In late summer, Philadelphia settled a federal class-action lawsuit over its aggressive asset forfeiture program. (How aggressive? One 78-year-old pensioner had $2,000 seized after police found her possessing a small amount of marijuana, which her retired husband used to alleviate his arthritis.) The city agreed to drastically curtail when and how it seizes property from residents and to set up a $3 million fund for victims of its sticky-fingered cops.

Asset forfeiture will continue in Philadelphia, albeit in a limited form. But the salad days when police and prosecutors could seize 300 to 500 homes a year, according to the lawsuit, are now over.

Earlier in the summer, a federal judge struck down Albuquerque’s asset forfeiture program, ruling the city “has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, which previously seemed reluctant to interfere in such cases, has agreed to consider an asset forfeiture challenge out of Indiana. … Justice Clarence Thomas also sharply criticized the practice in a 2017 dissent in a different case. “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” he wrote.

When agents of the government can “seize property even if the owner is not charged with a crime,” it should be clear enough that there’s a problem.

Human nonpersons and human rights

Bobby Schindler writes on the consequences of the logic of thinking of human life and human persons as severable:

Wesley J. Smith, author and bioethicist, wrote nearly two decades ago, “Practitioners of bioethics say who should live, and who should die.” Smith cautioned of an alarming and insidious trend within the modern bioethics’ movement known as “personhood theory.” He described how some bioethicists were asserting that what matters “morally” is not that one is “human,” but that one has a legal status as a “person.”

What makes someone a legal person with human rights worth respecting? One must possess, those bioethicists argued, mental competencies, such as “self-awareness” or having the ability to “engage in rational behavior.”

Consequently, those who did not fit this criterion would fall into the category of being defined as a human “non-person.” These “non-persons” would include embryos, the unborn child, infants (up to the first few years of life), those with Alzheimer’s disease, cognitively disabled individuals, and individuals with significant developmental disabilities. Indeed, if one fit the definition of being a human “non-person,” a philosophical determination, then bioethicists would accordingly be able to shape the social, cultural, judicial, and medical criteria for any one person enjoying basic human rights—including the right to life itself.

Peter Singer is perhaps the most infamous of this bioethical cohort. In 1998, Singer was appointed to Princeton University’s Professorship of Bioethics and has since served as a prominent advocate for personhood theory. His advocacy of the notion of human “non-persons” has been attractive to many and he enjoys a sort of celebrity status among bioethicists and ethicists generally.Today, personhood theory is part of ethics taught in countless colleges, and it’s having a significant impact on those most vulnerable to its dehumanizing logic.

It was not long ago, for instance, that to intentionally starve and dehydrate someone to death for any reason would have been thought of as barbaric and inhumane. Yet, Terri Schiavo, my sister, became just one of the more prominent of the countless victims of Peter Singer’s logic. Terri lived with a brain injury and was cognitively disabled, but her husband and, ultimately, judicial decision makers came to accept that her life lacked sufficient value to continue feeding her. Take note of this 2005 exchange between Smith and Professor Bill Allen, bioethicist at the University of Florida, debating Terri’s life:

Wesley Smith: “Bill, do you think Terri is a person?”

Bill Allen: “No, I do not. I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood.”

Fast forward to 2014: An article by The College Fix’s Mairead McArdle exposed “anecdotal evidence” that more college students support post-birth abortion, suggesting that children up to 5-years-old could be put to death because they are not sufficiently “self-aware” and thus they do not constitute “persons.”

In 2018, a video surfaced of a University of Tennessee Knoxville student who rationalized support for infanticide of two-year-olds based on the fact that the child is not sufficiently “sentient.” The student offered that “without communication, we have no way of knowing if you are sentient or not. It’s no different than this tree. It’s alive, but is it sentient? I don’t know. I cannot communicate with it.”

Can we really accept that we are, at any time, simply one accident away from being deemed by an overzealous bioethicist a “human nonperson” who unwillingly forfeits basic human rights?

‘Tales as wondrous as Homer’s’

As a follow-on from the Life Magazine cover I shared recently, here’s Joe Sobran:

Tone is the immediate expression of values, and the tone characteristic of abortion advocates is that of the sneer. And for a natural reason: their position is reductionist, value-denying. It intentionally minimizes the worth of the incipient human life; and let us bear in mind that for a long while it minimized the facts themselves. It is a prejudice, in the fundamental sense that it springs from the will in advance of any knowledge; it is not a conclusion from the available evidence, nor a perplexity caused by inordinate communion with complexities …

A very different tone was sounded by Newsweek in its January 11, 1982 cover story “How Life Begins.” Written by Sharon Begley, it began:

“If newborns could remember and speak, they would emerge from the womb carrying tales as wondrous as Homer’s. They would describe the fury of conception and the sinuous choreography of nerve cells, billions of them dancing pas de deux to make connections that infuse mere matter with consciousness. They would recount how the amorphous glob of an arm bud grows into the fine structure of fingers agile enough to play a polonaise. They would tell of cells swarming out of the nascent spinal cord to colonize far reaches of the embryo, helping to form face, head and glands. The explosion of such complexity and order — a heart that beats, legs that run and a brain powerful enough to contemplate its own origins –seems like a miracle. It is as if a single dab of white paint turned into the multicolored splendor of the Sistine ceiling.”

Miss Begley went on to speak of the abortion question as “scientifically unanswerable,” and yet she implicitly answered it herself, in her accents of stunned wonder. The very facts of fetal development, far from inducing value-free detachment, inspired her to remarkable eloquence.

Her whole article, though merely descriptive, was suffused with the reverence of a mind free of self-interest and absorbed by the unfolding reality before it. Reading it one felt that rare and sublime sensation of beholding, of sharing the intellect’s love of its object. “The five-week embryo, only one-third of an inch long, is a marvel of miniaturization: limb buds are sending out shoots whose dimples mark the nascent hands and feet, and the hindbrain has grown stalked eye cups.”

Stalked eye cups! This is not a “pretty” description, but an enthralled one, and it takes a certain nerve to insist, in the face of such data, that description has no bearing on prescription, or that the thing described is no more than a “blob of protoplasm.”

And we allow such things to be killed. They are destined to be men and women; they are what we once were. Is not our indifference to them, our official denial of our kinship with them, a judgment on ourselves?

As if to balance the undeniable import of Miss Begley’s article with a kind of moral disclaimer, Newsweek supplemented it with a shorter piece titled “But Is It a Person?”

“It is unquestionably alive,” wrote Jerry Adler, “a unique entity . . .” But, he continued, “The question is one for philosophers, not scientists; . . . the problem is not determining when ‘actual human life’ begins, but when the value of that life begins to outweigh other considerations, such as the health, or even the happiness, of the mother. And on that question, science is silent.”

From the heights to the depths. This was pretty near absurdity. Science, in the sense of physical analysis, is silent on every moral question, for the simple reason that science is not ethics.

We’ve got to recapture the capacity to conceive of the youngest members of the human family in the true and epic terms that Sharon Begley did in her Newsweek piece; in the sense of human beings emerging into the world, who though lacking autonomy and self sufficiency and independence for years upon years nonetheless have already are adventurers with “tales as wondrous as Homer’s.” Thinking in this way might help get the rest of us out of ourselves, and help get us thinking about more than our own ego and our own concerns and instead be content simply to be in the presence of the extraordinariness of others in the sense that C.S. Lewis invites us to think of others:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”