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Archive for April, 2014

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Every now and then the biomedical community and the legal system are presented with the opportunity to rediscover our collective humanity through the lens of animal rights and animal cruelty. More often than not that lens has insufficient power to correct their distorted perception of human dignity. Having just passed the ninth anniversary of Terri Schiavo’s death by starvation and dehydration, word comes today of the starvation and dehydration death of Roxy the dog, a boxer in England, who died at the hands of his solicitor-in-training owner, Katy Gammon.

Ms. Gammon has been in the employ of a law firm specializing in……

Medical Negligence.

It seems that Ms. Gammon retained Roxy who originally belonged to a boyfriend after the relationship ended. The dog was kept locked in the kitchen because it wasn’t housebroken. All was well until Gammon began staying with her mother a few blocks away and stopped coming to feed the dog after she injured her knee. A window into the collective soul from MailOnline:

Bristol Magistrates’ Court had previously heard that Gammon had confined the dog by tying a rope to the kitchen door handle and fixing it to a hook in the hall.

Roxy had frantically clawed at the door, leaving fragments on the floor, as she tried to escape before her death, which would have taken around six days…

Asked if she had deliberately locked her in the kitchen and left her to die, Gammon replied: ‘Yes, basically.’

The article continues with a description of what Roxy’s death was probably like. At this juncture it is worth noting that humans and dogs have very similar anatomy and physiology, and that dog experimentation has often been the last step before human trials of new medicines and medical treatments, because of our shared similarities. More from the article:

A vet said the pet would have taken up to six days to die gradually and painfully, becoming blind and falling into a coma before passing away…

‘A number of items had desperately been pulled out of cupboards. We believe this was a desperate attempt at searching for food or water.

‘Roxy suffered a slow, painful death which could have been prevented.’

And so it goes with human beings who are deprived of food and hydration as a means of hastening death. It is a slow and agonizing demise, as Roxy’s story indicates. Often the patient is unresponsive, but as the parent of any teenager knows, lack of responsiveness does not indicate a lack of sensory reception, or internal processing. Terri Schiavo was perhaps the most publicized case of the Roxys of our species.

However, shared physiology is where our paths diverge. Lower animals now possess greater dignity (from the Latin, meaning “standing”) in western jurisprudence than human beings. Consider the words of the sentencing magistrate as Gammon received 18 weeks in jail, and a lifetime ban on owning pets, for her crime:

Sentencing, magistrate Rod Mayall said: ‘You have shown limited remorse. You failed to behave as any normal person would have. This is the most serious case of animal cruelty encountered in these courts.’

And here is where the magistrate misses the mark by a mile. Humans are also animals. Additionally, we are a higher order animal, capable of at least as much pain (physical state) as a dog, and perhaps even more suffering (a psychological state). If this is the worst case of animal cruelty he has seen before the court, then it is because humans have lost their standing in the very courts they have created. Gammon has been sentenced to jail and a lifetime ban from owning pets so that she may never again be in a position to practice such barbarism. That’s a good thing.

However human beings who, on a daily basis, pull members of their own species apart, limb-by-limb, in the womb, and who similarly starve and dehydrate members of our own species to death do so with government-issued licenses and are considered practitioners in good standing.

The outrage in all of this isn’t that Gammon was punished for her crime against Roxy, it’s that the deaths of the Terri Schiavo’s among us aren’t considered criminal at all. It is that our legislators and judges do not, “behave as any normal person would have,” protecting humans with the same ferocity as they would if the subject in consideration were a dog.

The greatest tragedy of all is that humans have a long way to go before we enjoy equal dignity, equal standing with our pets in a court of law.

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Wesley J. Smith has a disturbing article dealing with Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu’s proposal to screen human embryos for intelligence. Smith quotes Savulescu:

A common objection is that being smarter does not make your life better. In this study, researchers were concerned with those with an IQ between 70-85. Below 70 is classified as intellectual disability but an IQ of 70 to 75 is similar to mild intellectual disability.

Even for individuals with an IQ between 75 and 90 there are still significant disadvantages. Job opportunities tend to be the least desirable and least financially rewarding, requiring significant oversight…Individuals with this lower level of intelligence are at significant risk of living in poverty (16%), being a chronic welfare dependent (17%) and are much more likely to drop out of school (35%) compared to individuals with average intelligence.

Studies show that there is also an increased risk of incarceration and being murdered.

Read it all.

When it comes to eugenics, there is simply no end to the killing until a just people rises up and either kills or incarcerates the practitioners, as was the case with Nazi Germany. When forced sterilizations weren’t enough, there were detention camps, which gave way to concentration camps where people were shot and buried. When that proved too slow and cumbersome to effect the eugenic goal, gas chambers were built, with exhaust fumes from tanks pumped in. When that proved still too slow, larger chambers using cyanide gas were built, and ovens to cremate the remains.

Eugenics has a malignant mania that increases with demonic furor the further in one goes. When we go from preventing birth to active killing, a point of no return is reached and the killing can only be brought to an end by brute force. Consider Savulescu’s argument.

He begins with screening embryos for genetic signposts pointing to potential cognitive capacity. He justifies the killing by pointing to undesirable outcomes such as poverty, welfare dependence and dropping out of school, ignoring that the risks are all very low. Poverty, welfare dependence, and being a school dropout are reason enough in Savulescu’s cramped worldview to kill those who might end up there. By that logic, why should we tolerate those who do end up there? Ought we not have camps for such “human weeds,” as Margaret Sanger called them? And what happens when we tire of supporting the camps?

There are certain cardinal virtues that go with being a Ph.D. My life’s mentor, Father Luke McCann, Ph.D., once told me that those cardinal virtues are contained in the three little letters of the title:

Prudence.

Humility.

Decorum.

I would submit that Savulescu and his fellow travelers are bereft of all three. They are also bereft of the very intelligence they stake such a claim to possessing, as intelligence goes beyond capacity for factual recall, but involves the capacity for problem solving. Advanced intelligence goes beyond mere problem solving and involves the capacity for vision guided by empathy and moral principle. Ph.D.’s are not awarded our degrees for merely taking classes and passing tests. We are awarded the degree for making novel discoveries, for advancing the knowledge within our field of endeavor. In other words, one must demonstrate vision and match the vision with corresponding accomplishment. So where does Savulescu and his cohort get it wrong?

PRUDENCE

Their vision becomes constricted and they lose perspective on life. Intellect for its own sake becomes the pursuit, and they can’t tolerate the aboriginals spoiling their view of an idealized landscape. It becomes easier to kill the marginalized than to create systems that incorporate them more fully into society. How academia has fallen.

There have been several movements in psychology and medicine to give more humane treatment to the “insane.” Forward thinking physicians tried “Moral Therapy” as it was known, where patients were no longer locked in asylums that resembled dungeons. Instead, they were housed in the country and visited regularly by the physician who would bring a small cake, or other gift. In the 1970’s, the warehousing of the mentally retarded ended, and the Group Home movement began, a modern reincarnation of moral therapy. To society’s surprise we learned that “retards” could actually be taught and gainfully employed. So successful has this been that the terms “mentally retarded” and “retard” are uttered today only by boors. People enhanced with an extra chromosome are now graduating from college!

The community of parents with children who have autism are similarly on the march. Marginalization only happens when ignorance and fear trump reason and compassion.

HUMILITY

The jobs that exist on the margins are only marginal to pompous, effete academics. A closer look reveals the central importance of the work that the lowest-paid workers perform. Taking deliveries and stocking shelves in stores is vital work for those who do not produce their own food. So too for cashiers and maintenance workers, cleaning crews, and kitchen staff. They are the unsung and thankless jobs that make civilization civilized. When Martin Luther King Jr. called for blacks to stay at home and not go to work, whites got a good taste of how indispensable those they disdained truly are.

The rarefied air of universities often induces a case of intellectual and spiritual anoxia in those who never darken the chapel door. Savulescus are the result.

DECORUM

Savulescu above all should know that doctors are not free, but constrained. There are simply some groups that one never, ever goes after. If the privileges of the faculty club are the perks for years spent in advanced study and intellectual pursuits, then the unspoken rule is that one NEVER goes after others of unequal academic accomplishment because of their unequal accomplishment. This is especially true for those of unequal capability. There was a time when Savulescu would have been shunned by the academic community for doing so.

One of my professors in graduate school once told me that the Ph.D. is no big deal. “It’s a union card, Gerry. Nothing more. If you want to do this work, you need the union card. The big deal is your publication list at your retirement party.” How very true. It isn’t the degree, but what one does with it that counts.

Oxford now has some soul-searching to do. Do they tolerate a Savulescu in their midst under the soiled banner of “Academic Freedom?” Do they show him the door? If we are to salvage a crumbling western civilization, then the formation of our young in universities and colleges will need to be done by Ph.D.’s who understand and live the three cardinal virtues of academics:

Prudence, Humility, Decorum.

Absent brute military force, that’s the only non-violent response to eugenics.

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