Students for Life conference

I visited the First Baptist Church of Glenarden today near Upper Marlboro, Maryland for the 2018 Students for Life conference, where I spoke with Catherine Glenn-Foster of Americans United for Life on human dignity and how best to serve those facing or considering euthanasia and assisted suicide.

It’s looked like a vibrant and beautiful Christian community, based upon the sanctuary itself and the photos lining the outer hallways. Today it played host to hundreds of young people from around the country who are hungry to serve vulnerable women and men who, across the spectrum, are too often told they have choice yet are handed only one or two real options.

The vigor and service mentality among young people to provide real alternatives to abortion, to euthanasia, to forms of suicide, is inspiring and precisely the sort of service needed to build a more humane culture where authentic autonomy and personal liberty is no longer achieved at the expense of a less fortunate brother or sister.

Humanae Vitae

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical concerning human life and the regulation of birth. Bishop Robert Barron speaks to this anniversary in this Word on Fire reflection:

When I worked my first real job at The Philadelphia Bulletin in 2008, whose motto was “Philadelphia’s Family Newspaper,” we published a special section commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. The Bulletin went out of business by 2010, but I have a number of digital editions saved from those years, including that section.

We can do all sorts of things with and to the human body and to the human person. The essential question is always, “Should we?” And equally as important is answering that having considered the immediate costs and longer-term consequences of our decision. Humanae Vitae remains controversial, but true things tend to remain controversial in every time.

Vita Institute in New York

Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture hosted a one-day seminar-style version of its Vita Institute in New York today at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture. I discovered this was happening only a few weeks ago, registered just before it reached capacity, and just finished this day of talks:

The Center for Ethics and Culture is proud to offer an exclusive installment of its elite pro-life training program for the faithful of the Archdiocese of New York.

Join us for a full day of instruction in the fundamentals of life issues with our world-renowned scholars in biology, philosophy, theology, and law. No prior knowledge of these disciplines is assumed or required; sessions are aimed at enthusiastic pro-life advocates seeking to hone their skill and enhance their knowledge to better advance the Culture of Life. In addition to intellectual formation, participation in the NYC Vita Institute will connect you with a community of like-minded champions for the most vulnerable members of our society.

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Biology: When Does Life Begin?
Fr. Kevin FitzGerald, S.J. (Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University)

Abortion: Law & Policy
Prof. O. Carter Snead (Notre Dame Law School)

Prenatal Screening, Diagnosis, and Selective Abortion
Mary O’Callaghan (Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture) & Katie Shaw

Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York

Abortion: The Philosophical Arguments
Prof. Frank Beckwith (Baylor University)

Abortion & The Church: Resisting a Throw Away Culture
Fr. John Paul Kimes (Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)

Cardinal Dolan’s remarks were basically a welcome to the participants, and by far the shortest of any of the sessions. Dolan primarily spoke on the past half century of New York City’s witness to life in a culture that has enshrined a sort of official indifference, with a default stance of skepticism toward life-affirming attitudes, to the situation of vulnerable persons:

 

Afterwards I met my friend Peter Atkinson at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral for mass, and we caught up over dinner at Lombardi’s Pizzeria nearby.

Appearance and human persons

William E. May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life is a great book for understanding the basis for pro-life advocacy and the vision so many have for a life-affirming culture rather than one which grants liberties procured at the expense of the rights of others.

Concerning the problem that human rights and the appearance of human persons:

[A] common set of claims … deny the humanity and a fortiori the personhood of the human zygote and early embryo [and] appeal[s] to the fact that these organisms do not “appear” to be human or persons. Pictures and drawings of human beings at these stages of development seem to support claims of this kind. “How,” they ask, “can you say that an organism with no face or hands or feet or organs can possibly be a human being, much less a person?” Or, “How can an organism no larger than the period at the end of a sentence possibly be regarded as a human being, a person?”

Germain Grisez points out that arguments of this kind are plausible, “because they use imagery and directly affect feelings. Usually, in judging whether or not to apply a predicate [such as human being or person] to an experienced entity, one does not examine it to see whether it meets a set of intelligible criteria; instead, one judges by appearances, using as guide past experience of individuals of that kind.” However, he continues, such claims can be falsified by pointing out that, “while the particular difference [between a human zygote or early embryo and embryos and fetuses at a later stage of development] is striking because of the normal limits of human experience, (nevertheless) entities that are different in that way certainly are living human beings.”

Stephen Schwarz, whom Grisez commends, has identified the element common to these denials of humanity and/or personhood to the zygote and early embryo and has responded to it decisively. He points out that all these objections are “based on the expectation that what is a person must be like us. It must be the right size (a size like ours); it must have a level of development comparable to ours; it must look like us; it must, like us, be conscious.”

But, he continues, “these are not true criteria for being a person [nor for being a human being].” They are rather “simply expressions of our expectations, of what we are used to, of what appears familiar to us. It is not that the zygote fails to be a person [or human being] because it fails these tests; rather, it is we who fail by using these criteria to measure what a person [or human being] is.”

It is unreasonable to expect that a human being in the first stages of his or her development will look like a familiar human being, or like a newborn baby or a four-year-old or a teenager, or a mature adult or a wheelchair-bound elderly man or woman. The way these persons “appear” during the early stages of their development says nothing of the status of their nature or being. Each of us develops and unfolds his or her inner essence and personality every day of our lives, and we were developing and unfolding them before we were born just as we do afterwards. This ought not to cause anyone surprise. “Horton,” one of Dr. Seuss’s lovable characters, hits the nail on the head in Horton Hears a Who when he says, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

And concerning the problem of “personhood;” of the idea that persons acquire their personhood from their recognition by their peers:

Another claim denying personhood to the unborn, or at least to many unborn human beings is widely held today, but it too is readily falsifiable. It is the claim that personhood is a status conferred on entities by others, and it is, surprisingly, held by many in our society. Proponents of this view contend that personhood is a social status conferred on an entity by others and that an entity is a person only when recognized by others as a person. They believe that this view is supported by the truth that persons exist only with other persons—personhood is relational in character.

One advocate of this view, Marjorie Reiley Maguire, proposes that the personhood of the unborn “begins when the bearer of life, the mother, makes a covenant of love with the developing life within her to birth … The moment which begins personhood … is the moment when the mother accepts the pregnancy.” And, if she does not accept it and decides to abort the “developing life within her,” that life must be regarded as not a person, for personhood has not been bestowed on it.

This position, of course, leads to the absurdity that the same being can be simultaneously both a person and not a person; it is a “person,” for instance, if at least one person, say its father, recognizes and esteems it as a person; but it is not a “person” if another person, say its mother, refuses to consider it a person. This claim presupposes that human meaning-giving constitutes persons; the truth is that human meaning-giving and human societies presuppose human persons.

We need a broader spectrum of choice as a way to heal a culture that presently and capriciously denies the basic humanity of all its people, often for material reasons that a society as fortunate as ours should be strong enough to resolve.

Ross Ulbricht

Brian Doherty reviews Nick Bilton’s “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road:”

Bilton rushes through Ulbricht’s trial. He does not discuss, even to debunk, the legal problems with the prosecution that Ulbricht’s lawyers have brought up. He never addresses any of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by the case, such as what Ulbricht’s team argues was an unconstitutionally broad search of the contents of his laptop. He doesn’t mention that the story he repeats uncritically about how the FBI found the Silk Road server has been declared impossible by various computer experts, or that the government has provided no verifiable corroboration for it and didn’t put the agent in question on the stand for cross-examination.

Nor does he discuss some obvious alterations in the computer records from Ulbricht’s stolen laptop—discovered by his lawyers after the trial—or the fact that someone was logging into Silk Road servers as “Dread Pirate Roberts” after Ulbricht was behind bars. When discussing the second set of alleged murders-for-hire, he lets nearly 100 pages pass before he lets the reader know that the killings never happened.

And then there’s the book’s end, which robs the cops’ whole cat-and-mouse game of any real meaning.

The conclusion calls back to the book’s opening, when a Homeland Security agent discovers an MDMA pill in some mail that a colleague blithely decided to open. (Bilton’s authorial voice sees nothing problematic in police opening any mail they want from overseas, a sad legal reality that’s key to many aspects of this story.) In the book’s final anecdote, with Ulbricht in prison for life, that same agent encounters a package with 200 such pills.

All the detailed sleuthing to find Ulbricht, all the lives upended and community destroyed, were ultimately for naught. Drugs are still sold, drugs are still shipped, drugs are still consumed. Silk Road’s encryption-and-bitcoin model is being used to traffic more illegal substances than were ever moved over Ulbricht’s website.

And they always will be. Ulbricht pioneered a new way of meeting a constant human desire, and that approach is unequivocally better, in every way, for sellers, users, and society at large. The pointless quest to arrest him did nothing to kill that innovation.

Yet the people who dedicated their time—and our money—to “taking him down” are the heroes of this narrative. Bilton’s book does what he thinks it does: It tells a harrowing and depressing story of a moral compass gone hideously askew, destroying lives. But that broken compass isn’t Ross Ulbricht’s.

I met Ross Ulbricht at Penn State in 2008, when I was an undergrad and he was working on his master’s degree. We only interacted maybe twice, and I doubt he would have any memory of me, but I remember him. When news of the Silk Road trial broke a few years ago, I was amazed that the same Ross Ulbricht was the “Dread Pirate Roberts” referenced in the federal allegations.

Ross’s sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, given his age, given the nonviolent nature of his offenses, and given the corruption of the FBI agents who built the case against him, is a travesty.

H.K. Derryberry

When I was in Cincinnati last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend Cincinnati Right to Life’s “Evening for Life” Dinner, which featured H.K. Derryberry as keynote speaker. H.K.’s life story is really incredible, and he and Jim Bradford, his friend/mentor, were inspirational in their witness for living the sort of life that recognizes suffering neighbors around you in your daily life. That’s how their friendship was built.

 

HK Derryberry’s short biography:

HK Derryberry’s life is truly a miracle.  Born July 8, 1990, in Nashville, Tennessee, HK arrived three months premature due to an automobile accident that took his mother’s life.  The tiny two-pound baby boy would spend the next 96 days fighting for survival in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Although doctors offered little hope for survival, this miracle baby proved them all wrong. Because of the accident and his premature birth, he was born blind, with cerebral palsy and countless other medical problems.  Eventually this proved too much for his father, who survived the automobile crash but was unable to cope with life.  When HK turned five years old, he left his disabled son in the care of his mother and disappeared for over ten years.  Raised by his grandmother, some people might say HK faced too many mountains to climb.

Quite the contrary!  At an early age, HK displayed an extraordinary will to overcome his disabilities and at age three enrolled at the Tennessee School for the Blind, becoming one of the youngest students in the school’s history.  His right arm, paralyzed from a stroke suffered soon after birth, did not stop him from learning to read and write Braille with just one hand, another first for the 150-year old school!

HK’s life was changed forever in 1999 when he unexpectedly met Jim Bradford, a local businessman in Brentwood, Tennessee, who was married with two adult daughters.  HK and Jim soon became inseparable and eventually Jim’s family welcomed HK into their lives like an adopted son.   His personal mentoring and constant involvement quickly exposed HK to a world he had never experienced.

Since age ten, HK had displayed signs of a remarkable ability to recall dates and other facts surrounding events in his life.  In 2012, the mystery of his memory was unlocked by medical researchers at Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Memory Clinic.  They discovered that HK is one of only five or six people in the world with a medical diagnosis of hyperthymesia, otherwise known as Superior Autobiographical Memory.  He has the ability to remember every event including time and place that’s occurred to him since he was 3½ years old.  Vanderbilt researchers are optimistic that studies on HK’s brain may one day lead to a breakthrough for people suffering memory loss.

Subjective human rights

Mike May interviews Wesley J. Smith, board member of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and Wesley conveys some of the fundamentals that inform our mission:

How do you see these issues and any other trends that are occurring as undermining human dignity?

When you say that some people have greater value than other people, when you say that some people have a greater claim on our care and our concern than other people, you are establishing an invidious system which would tolerate medical discrimination, perhaps in the form of healthcare rationing, perhaps in the form of a situation sometimes called futile care where doctors are entitled, under certain rules, for example in the law of Texas, to refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care. You open the door to things such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. Creating a system where people are valued differently will lead to oppression and exploitation of those who are deemed to be those less valuable.

What have you discovered to be the most powerful arguments against those trends?

I think the value system of the West, whether one is conservative or liberal politically, really accepts the concept of universal human rights and universal human equality. I think we need to fight any form of discrimination that challenges that, whether it’s based on race, whether it’s based on sex or whether it’s based on physical capacities, physical health or disability. When we point out that by engaging in these utilitarian practices and policies that you’re creating another form of invidious discrimination … I think people respond … .

The minute it’s subjective, the minute that we decide that in order to have the highest value you have to have a predicated capacity, then who matters and who doesn’t becomes more of a matter of who has the power to decide and you move into a great potential for discrimination.

Underscoring this: physicians can increasingly “refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care.” We’re debating whether we should have something like universal medical care, while at the same time evolving our ethics in a direction that allows for subjective delivery of that care.

 

Charlie Gard

Charles C. Camosy writes on what we might learn from the recent case of Charlie Gard, a little boy whose parents were denied the right to care for him despite being emotionally, financially, and medically supported in wanting to try an experimental treatment for their son’s rare condition. Instead, British courts mandated that little 11-month old Charlie should die by removal of his ventilator for subjective judgments about the nature of his life as a disabled boy. Bobby Schindler visited with Charlie and his heroic parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, last month, so this case is particularly close to the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and to me:

Why did so many argue that Charlie’s doctors were the proper authorities for deciding whether or not he merited medical treatment? By dint of their profession, physicians still possess a generalized authority and social credibility. Polling shows that Americans trust members of the medical sciences to act in the public interest more than they trust religious leaders, elected officials, or business leaders.

But even when the condition is well studied, physicians regularly make serious mistakes. Indeed, the third-leading cause of death in the United States is medical error. Art Estopinan—who has a four-year-old son with a disease similar to Charlie’s—has helped inform judgments about the Charlie Gard case by relating the poignant story of physicians telling him to take his boy home because he had two months to live. Charlie’s physicians claimed that they were much more certain about Charlie’s case, but the point made by Estopinan (and Bambino hospital) stands. When physicians know so little about these ultra-rare diseases, it is reasonable for parents to be skeptical of sweeping judgements.

But for the sake of argument, let us assume that Charlie’s doctors got all the medical data correct and made a perfect prognosis. What moral conclusions follow from their findings? None.

Nothing moral follows from medical facts. Judgments about whether or not treatment is worth pursuing will have to be made. And physicians, even with perfect medical knowledge, are not the best persons to make them.

It is not only that physicians rarely have serious training in ethics. Like all of us, they have certain biases which come from their social location. They are better educated than the average patient, wealthier, possessed of greater freedoms and opportunities. Their privileged status often causes them to underrate the value of the lives of less fortunate people. Studies have found that physicians are profoundly ableist in judging the quality of life of their patients; they often discount the worth of the disabled.

It was the ethical judgments of Charlie’s physicians that kept Charlie from getting treatment when there was a reasonable chance it could benefit him. Charlie does not belong to his physicians. He belongs to his parents. And they to him.

Charlie Gard is a child of God who now sees that God face-to-face. That is his eternal legacy. But his temporal legacy may well be forcing Western medicine to face two disturbing trends: a return to “physician knows best,” coupled with a slouch toward euthanasia on the basis of disability.

Charles makes a point here that I made last week at the Napa Institute, which is basically this: physicians and medical experts carry legitimate authority based on their stature as bearers of important and specialized knowledge, and about objective medical realities—but too often that authority is cited as the basis for imposing subjective treatment decisions. That was certainly the case with Charlie Gard, and it’s the case for many patients and families in America who find out too late that their physician, or an institution’s ethics committee, can make a unilateral and life-ending decision without the consent of the person allegedly being cared for.

Better policies for mothers

Kristen Day of Democrats for Life writes:

Democrats who oppose abortion aren’t like Republicans who oppose abortion. Not only are their priorities different, so are their policies. While Republicans who oppose abortion usually aim simply at banning the practice or making it difficult, Democrats who oppose abortion tend to take a whole-life approach, and to focus especially on reducing incentives to have abortions, rather than creating penalties.

… Democrats who oppose abortion are keenly aware of how many abortions are the result of financial stress and economic pressures, and we advocate constantly to reduce those burdens.

Signed into law along with the Affordable Care Act were several legislation proposals crafted by Democrats for Life of America called the Pregnant Women Support Act. We intended our proposals to reduce abortion by getting rid of many of the forces that push women toward abortion in the first place. We moved to eliminate pregnancy as a pre-existing condition for insurers, require State Child Health Insurance programs to cover mothers, fully and federally fund WIC and provide federal funding for day care. Likewise, when Senate Republicans moved last year to institute a 20-week ban on abortion, we at Democrats for Life of America urged legislators to include a paid family leave package along with the bill, with the aim of reducing financial burdens on pregnant women and their families. And in 2012, antiabortion Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a law that would ensure that pregnant women receive reasonable adjustments on the job and that they don’t face retribution for asking to be accommodated.

… If supporting pregnant women with government programs and employment protections isn’t enough proof of antiabortion Democrats’ commitment to women’s health, safety and liberty, antiabortion Democrats have also argued for higher minimum wages and for expanding services available to pregnant victims of domestic violence, stalking and other forms of abuse. Democrats who oppose abortion want to stop abortion, but that doesn’t entail a wholesale stripping away of women’s autonomy, as the policies outlined above indicate. And it certainly doesn’t imply a disregard for women’s lives.

The abortion debate is polarized and often extremely bitter. It’s easy to imagine that there really are only two sides: yours and the other guy’s. But Americans’ views on abortion are mostly in the gray area between always legal and never legal, and each person’s moral perspective will be nuanced by his or her own values and experiences. When Luján says that Democratic candidates who run for office in districts with strong antiabortion leanings deserve funding from the party, he isn’t saying that the party is going to fund candidates whose positions are tantamount to those of Republicans. He’s rightly observing that Democrats — real, bona-fide Democrats — do have a range of views on abortion, and to win as many elections as possible, the party has to recognize that.

I joined Democrats for Life because Kristen Day seems like one of the few people who want to create a real spectrum of choice.

Ethics of sexual relationships

Nathan Smith conveys the classical understanding of sex:

Men are tempted to exploit women for pleasure and prestige, and need to be on their guard against this temptation. Exploitation is worst when the woman is underage or drunk or emotionally unstable, or when the man uses a position of power to intimidate her, tells lies to impress her, promises to marry her, conceals his marriage to someone else, gets her pregnant, or exposes her to a sexually transmitted disease. But the bottom line is that if he serves his own pleasure at the expense of her welfare, that’s exploitation. If he knew, or could have known if he thought about it, that she’d regret it the morning after, that’s exploitation. And if he knew, or could have known, that she’d regret it one year, or five years, or fifteen years later, when she’s wasted some or most or all of her remaining reproductive years on a guy who wouldn’t marry her, that’s exploitation, too. “He used me” is a standard—and just, and accurate—complaint made by women against men they’ve had sex with. … The only ethically safe course is either to marry a woman or else to leave her chastity intact. …

Humans are intensely ambivalent about sex, regarding it by turns as vulgar, gross, and unseemly, or as sublime and beautiful. We place rape among the worst of crimes, while romantic love is one of life’s crowning glories, the theme of half the novels and songs the human race has written. The deceit and damage involved in so much premarital sex—cool dude bangs insecure girl and turns her into a single mom on welfare for life—fully justifies the repugnance that is one side of this ambivalence.

On the other side is the glory of marriage, and while there’s more to that glory than the selfish genes can explain, they shed an important light on it. For when two people marry, “leaving father and mother” as the Bible says and committing to lifelong monogamy, their genetic interests are united, at least approximately, creating a harmony of instincts. Ordinarily, our instincts put us in competition with our fellow human beings. In marriage, instinct is on the side of love.

Children are the large, obvious reason why marriage is good for society and why premarital sex isn’t. Sexual relationships always absorb a lot of people’s energy and attention, so they impoverish society unless they give something back. Marriage makes the next generation, under the most favorable conditions. Premarital sex is usually not intended for procreation, and if it does result in children, they enter life at a disadvantage because they lack stable parental commitments to raising them.

But even compared to childless marriage, premarital sex has an unwholesome character because, by failing to address genetic conflicts of interest through marriage, it allows competition, exploitation, and fear of betrayal to penetrate into the heart of the most intimate human relationships, not stealthily, but openly and as if by right. There is no way to make premarital sex promote the good of society or of the individuals involved. The world would be a better place if it never happened at all.

If this perspective seems outrageous or even just incredibly distant to you, that’s an example of how revolutionary the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s really turned out to be. The ethics of human sexuality can be far richer than our present “consent” culture allows for.