compos mentis, "of sound mind"

With permission granted begrudgingly from the author, I published her articles in this blog in response to pleas from her fans--okay, mostly aunts and uncles--for ready access to her cogitations. As the humble president of her fan club, I am delighted to oblige.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Groningen Protocol: Medical License to Kill

Published in The Indicator, vol. XIX, February 10, 2005
by Elizabeth Petrik

Netherlands infant euthanasia policy is a symptom of a deeper, more widespread moral ailment.
So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end in itself, never as means only. Immanuel Kant

Curiously few people have heard of the Groningen Protocol, and still fewer are as outraged as they should be. The media seems to have taken little interest in what has been described as “a radical leap past Kevorkian land into the regions of Mengele.” Put simply, the Groningen Protocol is a Dutch hospital’s experimental policy that establishes a panel of doctors to determine whether “highly defective” infants should be euthanized.

The Grand Forks Herald broke the story in October 2004, reporting: “The protocol is likely to be used primarily for newborns, but it covers any child up to age 12,” (the age at which the Netherlands allows dying children to request assisted suicide).” Also, the journal added, “A parent’s role is limited under the protocol. While experts and critics familiar with the policy said a parent’s wishes to let a child live or die naturally [would probably] be considered, they note that the decision must be professional, so rests with doctors.”

Although the proposal has yet to be officially instated by the Dutch Health Ministry, Groningen Hospital has already put it to test: four infants were quietly killed last year behind the hospital’s walls.

Frighteningly, such policies show signs of spreading beyond the Dutch borders. Belgium’s Parliament is also considering a law allowing infant euthanasia, and it is speculated that British physicians illegally euthanize as many as 18,000 child and adult patients per year. In the America, only the state of Oregon permits assisted suicide; non-consensual euthanasia, except for the cessation of treatment, is not legal in the States. Yet even here, deliberately administering overdoses of sedatives or painkillers is probably not uncommon and in some cases may be done without the patient’s consent. “As things are, people are doing this secretly, and that’s wrong,” affirms the head of Groningen’s children’s clinic Eduard Verhagen. The issue clearly needs to be addressed by government. Making these practices legal, however, to allow them to “be subjected to vetting” as Verhagen proposes, is not the solution.

Granted, the Groningen Protocol is only meant to apply to “very sad cases…the small number of infants born with such severe disabilities that doctors can see they have extreme pain and no hope for life,” as one spokesman for the hospital insisted. These tragic cases would include extremely premature infants and children with severe spina bifida or hydrocephalus. They might be missing parts of their body or brain, be severely handicapped (mentally and/or physically), or have no hope of surviving off life support. It is easy to see how doctors who encounter such broken and suffering specimens of humanity would be moved by compassion to dispatch these infants as humanely as possible.

Unfortunately, even the best of intentions can lead to misguided actions. As radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt points out, “The establishment of ‘independent committees’ to dispatch non-consenting humans is nothing but a death penalty committee for innocents. Once begun, it is impossible—simply impossible—to limit the concept with any bright line.”

When people take into their own hands the lives of those “with no free will,” there is no logical stopping point, no boundary of circumstances beyond which it would be unreasonable to destroy such a life. Euthanasia of children who have a .1% chance of surviving without life support leads naturally to euthanasia of children with a 10% chance. A still more cynical possibility: in a socialized medical system like the Netherlands’, this government-sponsored euthanasia panel might be tempted to annihilate any children whose treatments are not found cost-effective.

The protocol’s potential drift toward becoming a permission slip for convenient murder is horrible to contemplate. Nevertheless, the world must recognize that Groningen has already hit the bottom of the proverbial slippery slope. The Groningen Protocol and its widespread acceptance—or at least tacit endorsement—reveal a deeply distorted outlook on human life. By counting supposed “normal” or “good” lives as worthwhile and the rest only fit for merciful termination, this policy takes for granted that the value of an infant lies solely in the amount of pleasure and meaning its existence can contain. This idea is completely contrary to the human dignity euthanasia advocates claim to defend. From this utilitarian standpoint, the birth of a child is not miraculous and the saving of a life is not an inherent good. Humans are regarded as mere shells without intrinsic value; the worth of their existence is determined by its quality alone. This is the position Groningen Hospital adopted when it took the lives of those four infants and the position the world takes by condoning their killings.

Some advocates of infant euthanasia, however, hold that a newborn, as a non-rational being incapable even of desiring to live or to die, is still below the level of humanity. It should be treated more like an animal: if it is suffering unbearably, put it out of its misery. This raises the question: should human DNA automatically accord its bearer the “unalienable rights” with which all men are endowed? Does a human in an apparently irreversible coma still have the right to life? What about a child who will probably die within a week of being born? A profoundly mentally handicapped adult? A fetus?

Even without invoking the sanctity of life I believe to be the truly central issue, it is possible to find a rigid moral standard to answer these questions. Philosopher H.T. Engelhardt Jr., for instance, argues that since it is difficult to find a bright line defining when a human becomes a person, people should be divided into “persons strictly, who are bearers of both rights and duties,” and persons socially, who “are not morally responsible agents, but are treated with respect.” This division has multiple advantages. Nearly all the gray area of personhood would be eliminated if all biological humans were treated—at least medically—as persons. This guideline would also prevent egregious errors, such as euthanasia of the wrongly diagnosed and mistreatment of those whose personhood is in doubt. For example, thanks to medical technology of the last half century, we can still recognize the virtually immobile Stephen Hawking as a thinking, feeling human being. Who knows how many sound minds future medical progress will discover in ruined bodies—say, in Terri Schiavo’s? In addition, a society in which all infirm people are cared for is a safer and better place for all people than one that tries to make fine distinctions between who is worthy of life and who is not. Above all, what reason does Groningen hospital have to believe that a committee of doctors is more qualified to make decisions about the value of a child’s life than the child’s own parents?

Almost everyone would agree that if a doctor thought an infant should be euthanized while the parents wanted to give it a chance, the final decision should rest with the parents. The possibility of a child being killed against his parents’ will is the most viscerally repulsive aspect of the Groningen Protocol. It smacks of Nazi Germany, eugenic extremism, and every shade of utopias-gone-wrong. Certainly a parent’s wish to let his child live should be respected at all costs. But is it truly less evil if it is the parents’ choice to terminate their offspring’s life? As far as the infant is concerned, the outcome is the same. Are the parents’ or the child’s rights truly more at stake under the Groningen Protocol? If the answer is the former, then it follows that parents should have the ultimate authority over their child’s life. On the contrary, however, infanticide of healthy children is roundly, and rightly, condemned. Therefore, it appears that even a newborn has a right to life independent of the emotional attachment of his parents. At what point then, is an infant so disabled that its parents have the right to step in and end its existence? Since the child is not capable of deciding for itself whether it wishes to continue living, shouldn’t it be given the benefit of the doubt, at least as a person in Engelhardt’s “social sense”? A parent’s love and empathy for his child could lead him to a decision that would alleviate his own suffering rather than promote the best interest of the infant.

This is where the issue of the inherent value of life arises. No one, not even the parents, can be sure of a newborn’s state of being. Perhaps in some primitive way, even the short amount of time they spend on earth is full of meaning and importance to them. Maybe their brief lives are holy to God. Or it could be that the world is a tormenting ordeal that they are glad to be rid of in the end. At any rate, until we know the answer to this question, we have no right to end the life of another human being. Modern medicine allows us to control suffering with painkillers, and in some cases it may be appropriate to deny a patient some potentially life-saving treatment if it seems too extreme for the bounds of human dignity. But causing death should never be the object of any medical procedure. All lives ought to be considered as valuable in and of themselves.

As horrifying as the Groningen Protocol is, we must recognize it as a natural consequence of our attitude toward life. From the institution of capital punishment at almost the dawn of civilization to the comparatively recent social acceptability of abortion, society has come to see human lives as dispensable when they do not appear to contribute anything good to the world. Until we recognize our mistake, policies like Groningen’s will have no trouble finding a moral foothold anywhere in our world.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Legislation should not limit a pharmacist's right to choose

by Elizabeth Petrik
Published Wednesday April 27, 2005 in the Amherst Student, issue 25
Advocates who consider themselves “pro-choice” should be deeply concerned about the latest news from Illinois: On April 1, responding to the demands of two Chicagoan women whose pharmacies refused to provide them with the “morning after” pill, Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an emergency order requiring pharmacies to fill all contraceptive prescriptions or risk a fine and the loss of their license. Last week, Blagojevich moved to make his order permanent.
The “morning after” pill prevents pregnancy by hindering fertilization or, if conception has occurred, by keeping the embryo from implanting in the womb. This second line of defense is the reason the issue has received such widespread attention. Many people believe that life begins at conception and that a drug that causes a fertilized egg to be flushed from the mother’s body kills a human being. The right of these people to refuse to participate in what they see as murder should not be violated.
The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits government interference in the exercise of religion, so Governor Blagojevich has plainly acted unconstitutionally by forcing pharmacists with religious scruples to dispense the pill. But what about pharmacists whose pro-life position is not dictated by faith? The premises on which the pro-life position stands, “An embryo is a human being,” and “It is wrong to kill human beings,” are not inherently religious principles, so it is clear that this conflict is not primarily a battle between faith and reproductive rights—no one opposed to abortion, whatever his grounds may be, should be required to assist in what he sees as murder.
Kathleen Pulz, whose local Walgreen’s in Milwaukee refused to fill her “morning after” pill prescription, told The Washington Post, “I can sympathize with someone who feels strongly and doesn’t want to be involved. But they should just step out of the way and not interfere with someone else’s decision. It’s just not right.” Pulz expresses the frustration felt by many in the pro-choice movement towards those on the pro-life side: “You may disagree with what a woman does with her body,” they say, “but why can’t you let her make her own choice?” Clearly, those opposed to abortion believe that what the woman is dealing with is not her own body, and thus the decision does not rest with her; however, I believe the current issue is one on which both sides can come to terms.
A pharmacist, I think everyone agrees, has as much right to choose what she does or refrains from doing with her body as a customer seeking the “morning after” pill. If the pharmacist finds that she cannot in good conscience command her body to deliver the life-ending pill into the customer’s hands, then she is as much entitled to refuse to do so as the customer is entitled to find another pharmacy. The act of giving out the pill is no less of a private moral issue for the pharmacist than the act of taking it is for the woman. Even those who believe that a woman should be allowed to abort the child she has just conceived cannot impose their personal views on the pharmacist by insisting that she facilitate the process.
Or at least they should not do so. In a column entitled “Pharmacists’ job is to fill prescriptions,” Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald argues that a pharmacist’s refusal to dispense a prescribed drug is equivalent to a soldier’s refusal to engage in combat. A worker who is unwilling to perform “a foreseeable aspect of their job,” Pitts contends, should find other employment.
Combat, however, is more than a “foreseeable aspect” of a soldier’s job. It is his job. A pharmacist’s entire duties, on the other hand, do not consist of handing out contraception. In other words, while it is possible to work honorably and productively in the profession of a druggist without distributing the “morning after” pill, it is not possible to be an honorable and productive soldier without being willing to fight when so commanded. A soldier’s conscientious refusal to obey an order to fire upon unarmed civilians would be a better parallel to the pro-life pharmacist’s position.
Furthermore, if pharmacists are forced to dispense drugs they find morally objectionable, then well-reasoned people with strong moral convictions will cease to be drawn to the pharmaceutical profession. In general, society should be wary of rules that drive honest, intelligent people away from professions that require skill and integrity, like those that deal with the distribution of potent drugs.
Our health care provider’s right of conscientious refusal must be protected—in the name of choice.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Dred Scott Decision

The "debating society", through legislation from the bench, has wreaked havoc before...

by Elizabeth Petrik, April 2004

When it was handed up to the Supreme Court, the Dred Scott case seemed a simple matter. Dred Scott, a black slave, was demanding his liberty on the basis that his owner had kept him in bondage for five years while living in free territory. Beneath its straightforward surface, however, the political status of blacks, the conflict between the rights of slave owners and the establishment of popular sovereignty, and the power and credibility of the Supreme Court all rode upon Scott’s bid for freedom.

When it was presented with the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court immediately made the obvious but significant ruling that Scott, as a black, had no right to file a lawsuit. This decision effectively denied citizenship to all blacks in America. Thus, even free black people technically had no more rights under the Constitution of the United States than would a wild horse, for instance; while no one officially owned the black or the horse, either could be wantonly captured and put in a position of servitude or abused, and neither would have any legal recourse for redressing his or its grievances. The Supreme Court’s affirmation that black Americans were a subhuman class in the eyes of the law served both to frighten the free blacks living in the United States at the time and to anger abolitionists, who saw this part of the decision as another setback to liberating the slaves.

Having ruled that Scott’s suit was not legal because of his race, the Supreme Court could have dismissed the case, thereby sending only a minor ripple of discontent through the troubled conscience of the nation. The southern majority of the judges, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, however, saw fit to justify its decision further by proclaiming that under the Fifth Amendment, Scott, as property, could not be taken from his master without due process of law. In effect, a slave owner could legally take his slaves anywhere—including onto free soil—without their ceasing to be his possessions. This statement was radical because it nullified both the already-repealed Missouri Compromise, which had stated that slavery would be prohibited above 36º30’ north, and its successor, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed incoming states to determine the legality of slavery on their soil by a popular vote. If, as the Supreme Court ruled, slave owners could bring their slaves into any state or territory regardless of its free soil status, the idea of having the will of the people determine slavery’s legality in a region was meaningless. This part of the Dred Scott decision was opposed not only by abolitionists but also by advocates of popular sovereignty. Southerners, on the other hand, rejoiced at the ruling as a victory for slavery.

Their delight was to be short-lived, however, for another unexpected consequence of the Court’s pronouncement soon shook the nation. Before the Dred Scott decision, the rulings of the Supreme Court, while disputed by various parties, had generally been held to be the legal interpretations of the Constitution. A great deal of the North, however, maintained that the arguments used by the Court in the Dred Scott case were to be considered merely the opinion of a body of men, a “southern debating society,” and were not to be taken as America’s official stand on the slavery question. This blatant disregard for the established tradition of judicial review both angered and frightened southerners. How could the South be expected to coexist with a body that refused to follow its own rules and seemed determined to destroy the southern way of life?

The tension between the North and the South was drastically heightened by the Dred Scott decision. While the Supreme Court’s rulings that blacks were not citizens and that slaves were legal property no matter where they were held appeared to be a victory for the South, it actually served to stir the pot of bitterness between the North and the South and to call into question just how far the judiciary branch could go in interpreting the law before it ceased to be the law at all. Differences over the Dred Scott decision neatly split the nation into two contending sectional factions and helped to set them on the road to the Civil War.

Clive Staples Lewis

by Elizabeth Petrik, April 2004

“[S]trange as it may appear I am quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever,” Lewis once wrote to a friend who had expressed pity over his lack of faith (Gilbert and Kilby 17). It is startling to recognize the author of these words as the same who would later aver, “If you were subjects of Maledil [Christ] you would have peace” (Lewis, Out 140). During his lifetime, C. S. Lewis made a complete transformation from a sneering, self-confident atheist to a humble obedient Christian. All his major works of fiction are shaped by this metamorphosis, reflecting the blessings he learned to value and the sins he came to loathe through his conversion. His allegories Pilgrim’s Regress, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters, as well as his famous children’s fantasies The Chronicles of Narnia and the science fiction Space Trilogy bear the unmistakable imprint of his faith. With his gift for empathy, earned through experience and self-criticism, Lewis’s works reach out to a world he saw as wildly astray from the purpose for which it was created and to help those who struggle along the route to becoming Christian.

His own route began at his birth in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland, where his parents gave him the name Clive Staples, mercifully addressed him as “Jack,” and raised him in a “nominally Christian” manner (Gilbert and Kilby 16). At the age of six Lewis felt the first of his lifelong pangs of desire for what he termed Joy. “The most poignant experience of it had been one summer day when he was standing beside a currant bush. The little boy had felt suddenly arise in him ‘as if from a depth not of years but of centuries’ a longing so deep that, as he described it later, ‘in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant by comparison’” (Gilbert and Kilby 22). This experience began Lewis’s misguided quest, described allegorically in Pilgrim’s Regress, for an earthly means to capture that state of Joy and make it permanent.

Gilbert and Kilby summarize the tale:
Turning away from the hateful Landlord [who symbolizes God] to whom his parents had recommended him, John one day got a glimpse of a delicious Island and heard music so sweet as to set him searching for more of it. He went through a long series of unsatisfying and sometimes bruising experiences until he at last found the Joy he had sought in the Landlord whom he had so thoroughly misunderstood (19).

Lewis, a gifted student, also developed early in life the disgust with the educational system that was to influence his later works. The school in England he attended at the age of ten was loathsome to him and was closed down when the headmaster was declared insane (Gilbert and Kilby 9). In any academic setting, however, Lewis was infallibly ahead of his peers and found that “[t]oo many of his schoolmates had displayed every motive but that of real learning” (Gilbert and Kilby 16). Later in life he often ventilated his outrage against schools, which he felt placed too much emphasis on the psychological evaluation and ego boosting of its students too little on their duty to lead them in the pursuit of truth. In The Silver Chair he describes Experimental House, a “modern” school at which the heroine is being tormented by her classmates before she is whisked away into Narnia: “All sorts of things, horrid things, went on…. [T]he people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the mains result was that you became rather a favourite than otherwise” (1-2). In The Screwtape Letters Lewis described the actual evil, counter-Christian tendencies he saw in the education system. Screwtape, a devil “deep in the lowerarchy” happily pontificates on the state of English and American schools: “[T]he children who are too stupid or lazy to learn…can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time…. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work…because [they] would get a trauma…” (167). With glee, he goes on to discuss the practical implications of such a system with regard to ensnaring the souls of men: “We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us” (168). This attitude reveals the importance Lewis, whose studies led him to Christianity, attached to education.

These studies began at fifteen with his schooling under the crusty, atheistic W. T. Kirkpatrick. Lewis, who had also become emphatically atheistic by this point in his life, fell in love with learning under his new teacher. Kirkpatrick’s tutelage, however, in addition to preparing him for Oxford University, helped him forge the base of understanding that was eventually to lead him to God, though at the time it seemed to confirm his unbelief.

This experience, no doubt, led Lewis to portray the pursuit of knowledge as a mixed blessing. In The Chronicles of Narnia the recurring character Digory Kirke, probably based on his old tutor Kirkpatrick, is described as "the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into other books" ( Lewis, Magician 36). In the book Digory's thirst for knowledge leads him to probe into matters he has no right to inquire about, waking a great evil that nearly destroys two worlds. He is able to redeem himself only through unquestioning obedience to the will of the Christ-figure Aslan.

As an atheist, however, Lewis was far from seeing morality as rooted in submission to a higher power. He felt that man was only obligated to perform the actions owed to his "manhood and dignity, quite apart from belief in gods" (Gilbert and Kilby 16). As a result, Lewis performed many actions in his youth of which he was later to repent, but which would lead him to insights into the nature of man. In the introduction to Screwtape, he confessed that he needed no great research into the workings of temptation, for, "'My heart'—I need no other's—'showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly'" (xiii).

Inchastity and Flippancy were among the youthful sins Lewis indulged and later condemned. He wrote of incontinence in Screwtape, "The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured" (83). His flippancy manifested itself in the sophisticated, condescending attitude he took toward religion. He once chastised his Christian friend Arthur Greeves for not joining the "educated and thinking" atheist elite (Gilbert and Kilby 16). Lewis would later warn against using such language to discredit faith. He has Screwtape admonish his nephew devil not to “waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about” (8). Thus, once again, Lewis’s own life provided him with an insight crucial to his apologetic work.

At this point in his young life, Lewis’s spiritual position was similar to that of Jane, a protagonist in That Hideous Strength, who had “abandoned Christianity…along with her belief in faeries and Santa Claus” (334). Around the age of nineteen, however, as he fought in World War I, the time came that he was “old enough to start reading fairy tales again” (Lion dedication) and began to look at his old faith in a new light. The first change that overtook Lewis was a growing belief in Absolutes, the notion that things have intrinsic value beyond what is imposed upon them by man. Gilbert and Kilby describe a letter to Arthur Greeves in which Lewis speculates about the causes of aesthetic pleasure. In it, he concludes that a beautiful tree cannot derive its appeal from the light rays that bounce from it to an observer’s eye or from the chemical reactions in the eye and brain that allow a viewer to perceive and identify it. Rather, the tree is seen as attractive because of “Something right outside time and place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter’s great enemy: and that Beauty is the call of the Spirit in that Something to the spirit in us” (qtd. 18). This train of thought eventually led him to the realization that the Joy he had been pursuing was not desirable in itself, but only for the sake of its Object, which he came to recognize as God (20). At this point, Lewis was just emerging from the existentialist self-serving state in which he placed the Dwarfs in The Last Battle. Until their death and beyond, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs” is the perpetual motto of this clique. They refuse to take the side either of good or of evil in the last great battle of Narnia because of their all-consuming refusal to be “taken in.” Even as they delude themselves into believing they are not in Heaven they reassure one another, “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here” (148). Similarly, Lewis had initially held the view that “Man is for man” and no one else. Despite the yearning for Joy drawing him toward God, he persisted in mocking “the Christian mythology” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby 18). His emergence into a belief in a concrete Truth outside of the human mind was, as Gilbert and Kilby observe, “a long step upward for the atheist” (18).

For years Lewis’s conviction in his former notions of the world grew less as he reexamined his old reading materials. He found that the works he most admired were those of Christians like George MacDonald and George Herbert. At the same time Lewis began forging friendships in Christian circles among people like Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien. One day on his way home he had an experience of divine Choice being offered. “I could open the door [to faith] or keep it shut…” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby). His own experience of celestial intervention probably inspired the account of such an occurrence from a devil’s perspective in Screwtape: “As you ought to have known, the asphyxiating cloud which prevented your attacking the patient on his walk back from the old mill…is the Enemy’s most barbarous weapon, and generally appears when He is directly present to the patient…” (58). His encounters with earthly Christian influences as well as this mystical experience led to Lewis’s probing the Christian faith in earnest.

One of his greatest difficulties was the doctrine of atonement, the belief that Christ’s death paid for the sins of mankind. He eventually came to accept it as a mystery, recognizing that “Christ Himself is larger than any possible doctrinal statement about Him can ever be” (Gilbert and Kilby 20). This leap was made easier for Lewis by the fact that ancient tradition, which he always regarded as a potential source of wisdom, carries so many inexplicable stories of sacrifice and suffering for others. “Can one believe,” he wrote, “there was just nothing in that persistent motif of blood, death, and resurrection, which runs like a black and scarlet cord through all the greater myths…?” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby 20). Lewis eventually became so comfortable with the notion of atonement that he used it as the basis for his symbolic children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the story the Lion Aslan gives up his life in place of a child who has betrayed his siblings to a witch. The next day, to the children’s surprise, Aslan rises from the sacrificial altar. He explains that had the Witch looked back farther, she would have found a deeper magic than her own: “She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (160). Thus, Lewis’s final acceptance of this mystery provided still more material for his fertile Christian imagination.

Even after coming to terms with its doctrine, however, one final obstacle remained between Lewis and Christianity. He preferred his sense of possession of his soul to the absolute surrender required of him by the Christian God. In The Great Divorce, his Dantesque account of a journey to Heaven through Hell, Lewis feigns a conversation with his hero George MacDonald, who addresses the evil of such possessiveness: “That kind is sometimes perfectly ready to plunge the soul they say they love in endless misery if only they can still in some fashion posess it”. In the end Lewis felt it was God himself who brought about his final conversion. According to Gilbert and Kilby, “…he was beginning to feel God bearing down on him” (21). In 1929 he accepted that “God is God” (qtd. by Gilbert and Kilby 21), and in 1931 he took the final step to “Christ is God.” He later laughed about the ordeal through which he was dragged: “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me…they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (qtd. by Gilbert and Kilby 20). Far from marking an end, however, Lewis’s “capture” by God represented the beginning of his spiritual voyage.

Lewis knew that the struggle to maintain the habit of obedience would last the rest of his life. He once wrote, “It took me as long to acquire inhibitions as others (they say) have taken to get rid of them. That is why I often find myself at such cross-purposes with the modern world: I have been a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby 17). In coming into faith he discovered many personal failings that he would battle and incorporate into his literary works until his death in 1963. Most significantly, he found in himself “a great depth of pride” (Gilbert and Kilby 21). He described the peculiar difficulties he found in the struggle for humility in Screwtape: “Catch [a man] at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on” (63). Thus, Lewis continued to make use of his flaws as a Christian for the edification of his readers. Despite the fresh trials involved in his new faith, Lewis recognized Christ as the source of the Joy he had sought vainly since the age of six. Like John in his Pilgrim’s Regress, he found that the Object of his search was not an elusive emotion but a very real Presence that could be found very close to home. All of Lewis’s works carry an undertone of the bliss he found only in Christ. Jane’s experience in That Hideous Strength, for instance, reflects his own surprise that such life should be found in such an ancient, bland-seeming faith:
The vision of the universe which she had begun to see in the last few minutes had a curiously stormy quality about it. It was bright, darting, and overpowering. Old Testament imagery of eyes and wheels for the first time in her life took on some possibility of meaning…. It ought to have been she who was saying these things to the Christians. Hers ought to have been the vivid, perilous world brought against their grey, formalized one; hers the quick, vital movements and theirs the stained glass attitudes. That was the antithesis she was used to. This time, in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like (316).

In Perelandra Lewis makes an ultimate, exultant declaration of the Joy that is God: “All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!” (217)

Led by the Joy he felt so keenly, Lewis made his halting way from the weak faith of his childhood to his youthful rejection of God and finally fully into Christianity in all its ripeness and glory. With his gift for writing Lewis was able to share the experience of his conversion through literature that would serve to guide, comfort, convince, and admonish Christians of his time and afterward. Lewis’s God-propelled transformation from a skeptical young atheist to a Christian of deep faith made him one of the most acutely perceptive and influential apologists of modern times.

Works Cited:
Gilbert, Douglas, and Clyde S. Kilby. C.S. Lewis: Images of his World. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.
Lewis, C. S. The Horse and His Boy. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. The Last Battle. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972.---. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. The Magician’s Nephew. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. Out of the Silent Planet. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1965.---. Perelandra. New York, NY: Collier Books, 1962.---. Prince Caspian. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. The Screwtape Letters. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982.---. The Silver Chair. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. That Hideous Strength. New York, NY: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996.---. The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Utilitaria: The greatest good for the greatest number?

The following piece was published in The Bagpiper, issue 8, vol. 23, May 23, 2003.

Utilitaria by Elizabeth Petrik

Flond Wilferboggle scrutinized himself in the full-length, three-dimensional mirroscanner. He carefully turned a knob on the control panel, and the holographic image of himself rotated slowly in the air before him. He made a few minute adjustments to his perfect hair—still an unblemished blond at thirty-five years old, straightened his conservative blue tie, and delicately brushed some nonexistent dust from his black lapels. Then he spun his scannoreflection in a complete circle, nodded in satisfaction at the result, and switched the mirror off. He glanced around the cool, brightly lighted chamber, checking for anything he may have forgotten. No, there was nothing left to do but wait until that surly grump of a cameraman came to call him into the studio. Flond was anchorman for the live evening news hour for Xambec V’s most popular worldwide teleoptical network, Aselliburg Division Broadcasting. He loved his job. With two-thirds of the planet’s population was watching his head and shoulders through their teleopt receiver lenses, Flond loved to imagine himself a universally admired and envied figure, so he always did his best to look the part of the breezy, sophisticated reporter.
Unfortunately, the extra time Flond gave himself for primping often left too much time for idleness before his show. This always worried him, because he was never sure when his inactivity would harm someone else. It very rarely did anyone any good, and Flond was haunted by the fear that Boss would detect this and send him a notice that he was required to spend his extra time volunteering in a day care center or something. He uneasily lifted his forearm to check his Sum Population Impact Totaller (SPITer, for short). The small digital screen blinked a comforting N=0 and an indifferent P=0. Good, thought Flond with an inward sigh of relief. No negative impact, no positive impact. I'm just minding my own business and not bothering anybody.
Flond walked toward one of the bright white walls of the room and relaxed into a nondescript gray cube, which automatically flowed into the most comfortable shape for his form. Still another twenty minutes before airtime. Flond glanced again fondly at his SPITer. Of course, everyone was required to wear them, but Flond’s was a particularly sleek and expensive model--no bigger than a chunky watch, and it could also serve as an alarm clock, flashlight, thesaurus, and paper-shredder. And Q-tip, if you knew how to use it. At this particular moment, however, it was still simply flashing Flond’s Population Impact Sum: N=0, P=0. Actually, if you really thought about it, Flond reflected, it wasn’t just simply flashing his PIS. Calculating the number of people in the world that are positively affected and the number that are negatively affected by any given action isn’t a simple process. Naturally, the point of the SPITer was to act as a sort of spy for the master computer, “Boss,” that governed planet Xambec V. The SPITer on each person’s wrist constantly relayed information about that person’s impact on everyone else to the Boss, and if at the end of the year, a person’s total of N’s—or people adversely affected—exceeded the number of P’s—people helped in some way—he was heavily fined and the confiscated money was used to help the poor or build amusement parks—anything to make other people happy until the N’s and P’s were balanced again. This way, in theory, there were at least as many happy people as unhappy people in the world at any given moment.
Flond reclined more comfortably into the chair cube, thinking back to his high school history class. The developer of the original idea, he recalled, was Jeremy Bentham, an economic philosopher of planet Earth during her Age of Industry—somewhere in the 1800s in Earth years. Bentham’s thought had been that every action should be judged by its effect, and the most desirable course of action would be that which does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This was the principle on which the SPITer was founded. Although Xambec’s technology was vastly better than Earth’s, the basic idea remained the same. Of course, the poor Earthlings were still in the elementary stages of implementing Bentham’s philosophy into their daily lives; Earth was the starting point of ideas for the universe, Flond reflected, but few came to their full fruition until they were seized and expanded upon by others. Take the Whoopee cushion for example…the inventor of that one could have been great. Still, they had made a start in applying Bentham’s ideas to some areas. It was often used as an alternative source of moral law where religion was awkward or uncomfortable. In public schools, politics, and business, for instance, hints of this could be seen.
Flond shook himself out of his daydream at the sound of his head cameraman’s nerve-grating voice. “Are you ready or not? We go on in thirty seconds.” Flond rose, followed the slouching figure of the darkly muttering man into the studio, and sauntered over to the fake wood-paneled desk and businesslike black chair before the camera, seating himself just as the cameraman grumbled, “Three, two, one, action.” Flond smiled suavely into the lens.
“Good evening, and welcome to Broadcast of Aselliburg Division News. For our top story this hour, we have an interview with Col Wambersmog, the flour refinery employee whose mistake with the machinery caused his fellow workers to sneeze for weeks. Col has been heavily fined to make up for the unhappiness caused by his error.”
Flond slumped in his seat and tuned out for a while as the interview was played for his viewers. He found himself wondering how SPITers could judge what was the greatest good. After all, that was half of Bentham’s proposal, wasn’t it? The greatest good for the greatest number. How could anyone determine the magnitude of a benefit? Then again, did it really matter? He didn’t particularly care, Flond thought, yawning as he rested his head on the desk. Things were much easier this way, anyhow. He sat up sharply at the cameraman’s sudden snarl, “Hey, Sleeping Beauty, you’re on.”
“And welcome back to BAD News. Next this hour we send our congratulations to Kate Wikerfaddle, this year’s high PIS scorer. According to Boss’s records, Kate has had a positive impact on the lives of exactly 12,398,699 people during the course of the year while only damaging one—herself. Kate is currently in the hospital being treated for malnutrition, chronic dehydration, and several illnesses she acquired as a result of getting too little sleep and taking too few baths. When asked about her condition, Kate commented, ‘I just didn’t have the time to think about myself. I really wanted to be the winner this year, you know.’”
Flond allowed a slight pause for this story to sink in, and in the lull everyone on the set turned toward a clattering noise outside the recording room door. Suddenly, in burst a short, dark man armed with a small pistol. He raised his arm, the gun cracked once, and the cameraman dropped silently to the floor and lay still. The man glanced at his wrist and turned calmly to go. All at once everyone in the room snapped out of their shock. Another cameraman and camerawoman lunged for the small figure in the doorway. Flond, who had been staring in openmouthed horror on live teleopt as the unmanned camera continued to roll, stood uncertainly and made for the silent body of the cameraman. Dead as an artificial open-shut intercommunicator nail. Disgusting. Flond glanced up toward the door, where the undersized gunman was struggling against the crowd that had formed, protesting loudly over the din. “I didn’t do anything wrong! Just look at my SPITer! I didn’t do anything!” Curious, Flond shoved through the crowd and seized the man’s SPITer wrist. Flond gasped in surprise. He dragged the man through the throng and in front of the still-running camera.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just had a bit of an incident in the studio here. This man—What’s your name?” With a sudden inspiration, Flond struck a pose of familiarity, smiling smoothly and flinging an arm over the gunman’s shoulders while surreptitiously holding the tail of his blue necktie, which contained his concealed microphone, up to the other man’s mouth. “Stanley,” muttered the man, suddenly sullen and wary.
“Stanley. Wait! Not the Stan Wanderfoggen? Stan the Hit Man! Wow! What a pleasure to meet you! Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen, as I was saying, Stan here just entered this studio and shot Broadcast of Aselliburg Division’s head cameraman to death.” Stanley twisted abruptly, trying to wrench himself out of the camera’s view, but the friendly arm around his shoulder tightened quickly, restraining him. Flond smiled at him again and continued calmly, “Yes, a homicide was committed, and I’m afraid Stan’s PIS does show N=1. But hold on! Stan is to be congratulated, not arrested! It seems that the man he killed quite deserved it. Stan’s SPITer shows that this one small murder improved the lives of 15,000,001 people! Let’s have a round of applause for our new PIS winner of the year! Sorry, Kate, your record has just been broken!”

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Diversity is an Overrated Phenomenon

As part of the Amherst College admissions process in 2004, prospective students had to respond to one of several quotations from the school's alumni. The following is the quotation chosen and the essay response submitted by Elizabeth Petrik:

“For me, ‘diversity’ is not a political slogan or a theoretical goal; it is an absolute necessity. …It is impossible for students from any particular background to engage fully the racial and ethnic dimensions of American culture in a setting that does not approximate the racial composition of the society as a whole.” -Hoxie

Diversity is an overrated phenomenon. Virtually all American colleges and universities loudly proclaim their belief in promoting a "diverse" student body. Mr. Hoxie’s essay summarizes the position of these schools: to prepare students for the real world, we must simulate the real world by providing representatives from many races and ethnicities on our campus. The flaw in this argument is that its natural effect is to perpetuate the importance of racial and ethnic distinctions in society. In truth, however, these differences are superficial. They should not be allowed to dominate the culture of colleges and universities by becoming a major educational focus. To permit this is to put the backgrounds of individuals, over which they have no control, in a position of greater prominence than their reason, beliefs, and morals. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is to set “the color of their skin” above “the content of their character.”
Mr. Hoxie’s statement, “…‘diversity’ is not a political slogan or a theoretical goal; it is an absolute necessity,” expresses the substance of this error. The view that racial and ethnic variety is vital in the function of “society as a whole” is contradicted by history as well as logic. For example, the American Constitution, the oldest working framework for government in existence, is the product of a relatively homogenous set of minds: the Framers were all white men who were generally well read, young, and financially stable.
Proponents of diversity might argue that if black delegates had been present at the Philadelphia Convention, slavery might have been abolished, and the Civil War could have been averted. However, blacks could only have had a voice in the creation of the new government if they had been considered fundamentally equal to whites; the differences Mr. Hoxie proposes to emphasize would have had to be held irrelevant. In that case, there would have been no need to ensure a quota of black delegates at the convention. Qualified blacks would have been sent as a matter of course, and if no blacks had been selected, their rights would have been considered naturally identical to those of whites. The same reasoning applies to the injustices the Constitution permitted toward women, Native Americans, and other groups. The root of these evils is not the Founding Fathers’ disregard for the oppressed minorities; it is the excessive stress they laid on these groups’ differences from themselves.
The Framers’ mistake is now at work in the American education system, as revealed in the sentiments expressed by Mr. Hoxie. Contrary to his beliefs, the best way to prepare students to “engage fully the racial and ethnic dimensions of American culture” is not to degrade the members of these “dimensions” by treating them as statistics that “approximate the composition of the society as a whole.” Rather, schools ought to regard each as a human being whose merits should not be determined by such irrelevant factors as skin color or birthplace, but instead by ability, willingness, and aspiration to succeed.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Risks of Assisted Suicide Make it Dangerous and Illegal

This article was published in The Amherst Student, issue 19, March 2, 2005

By Elizabeth Petrik ’08.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear a case regarding Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act shows how fortunate we are to live in a nation that regards life-taking legislation with the highest suspicion. The 1997 law is the only one in the United States that allows terminally ill patients to request physician-assisted suicide. According to this law, a patient who is considered mentally competent may obtain lethal medication from his or her doctor. This October, the Supreme Court will listen to former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s challenge that prescribing drugs for the express purpose of causing death violates the Federal Controlled Substances Act.
The plaintiff’s case is powerful enough that some of the some of the Death with Dignity Act’s supporters expressed hope that the Supreme Court would refuse to hear it. After all, if the law sees prescribing narcotics to give pleasure as wrong, how much worse is prescribing drugs to end life? Even the Hippocratic Oath, which states, “primum non nocere” (first, do no harm), is a solid reason to prohibit doctors from becoming involved in patients’ self-destructive designs.
The issue, however, runs far deeper than the letter of the law. Advocates of assisted suicide hold that the right to die with professional help is intensely personal and should not be restricted by those who are not in a position to understand the patient’s state of mind. I wholeheartedly agree that the government should protect its citizens’ rights to self-determination and would even argue that this is the purpose of government. However, the fact that the stakes in this game are literally life and death requires a more complicated approach to the meaning of “self-determination” than simply “doing whatever you want with your life.”
Dangerous factors can become involved in a patient’s decision to die. Some may feel pressure not to let their loved ones see them suffer, and others may want to leave a larger inheritance by ending treatment. The definition of patient competence is also uncomfortably hazy, and in at least one instance a clinically depressed patient was allowed to request physician-assisted death. After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and told he had 6 months to live, Oregonian Michael Freeland was considered so unstable that all guns were removed from his home. But he was also given a lethal overdose of barbiturates to take at will. Fortunately, however, Freeland’s prognosis was incorrect—another hairy issue for assisted suicide advocates. Freeland eventually chose to live out the remaining year and a half of his natural life, reconciled with his daughter and died peacefully at home.
Other practical problems arise with the implementation of assisted suicide. It is worth noting that modern doctors are armed with painkillers capable of controlling almost any amount of suffering. On the other hand, according to a New England study, complications such as vomiting, seizures, protracted death and failure to induce a complete coma occur in approximately seven percent of patients who choose to die by lethal overdose. In Oregon, where a doctor’s presence is not required during the administration of the drug, the possibility for the “Death with Dignity Act” to lead to one of the most needlessly painful, undignified deaths imaginable is too strong to discount.
Furthermore, it is in everyone’s best interest for the state to insist that the inherent value of human life outweighs all concerns about its quality. It is a short step from permitting people to end their own lives when they consider them meaningless, to allowing them to end the lives of their dependents, to policies like the Netherlands’ Groningen Protocol in which an independent committee decides the fate of a disabled infant. By giving all lives a chance, we can halt our descent down this slippery slope before it begins.
The ultimate reason for our society’s skittishness about assisted suicide is the utter finality of death. If a mistake is made—an erroneous diagnosis, a misunderstanding of the patient’s wishes or a change of heart after drinking the poison—there is no going back and fixing it. In a choice between keeping 1,000 people unwillingly alive and allowing one to die unnecessarily, the former is therefore undoubtedly the lesser evil. Whatever may happen after death, the role of the living ceases at its threshold. What, then, gives anyone the inherent right to choose when or how to cross it? The natural rights listed in the Declaration of Independence include life and omit death for a reason: Our Founders had the humility to see that the death of a human being is simply too weighty a matter to be decided by mortals like us.

Terri Schiavo's Right to Life

This article was published in The Indicator, April 7, 2005, vol. XIX, issue 4. The Indicator is Amherst College's Journal of Social and Political Thought.

Living on a Prayer: Even the profoundly disabled are endowed with the right to life
by Elizabeth Petrik

“If Terri Schiavo did not choose to die, then someone else chose for her. And that should outrage everyone.”
“The word of her husband that she would have preferred to die along with Justice Greer’s foregone conclusion that quality of life should determine its length were enough to condemn her.”
Among many impoverished peoples, Darwinism is still the law of the land. Those who cannot fend for themselves die. That preserving the life of a chronically helpless woman was even a subject for debate in this nation proclaims our blessings as a society. That we ultimately came down on the side of death, however, signals their abuse. It is a clear warning that the most powerful advocate of human rights on the planet needs to reevaluate its priorities when, in the name of “self-determination,” 56 percent of Americans decide that someone else’s life is not worth living.
Given the complex moral nature of Terri Schiavo’s case, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people were misguided. Schiavo had existed in a vegetative state for fifteen years following a collapse allegedly due to a chemical imbalance in her body. She had not been able to speak, walk, communicate, or eat on her own since that time. When, after enduring a decade and a half with a helpless and unresponsive wife and spending most of a million-dollar malpractice settlement on her therapy and care, Michael Schiavo decided to let her die, it is easy to see why many Americans supported him. Hearing her story, we all wonder, “What if it were my spouse, or sibling, or child? What if it were I?” And it is difficult to imagine wanting to see a loved one suffer that way, or wanting to go on living oneself under such conditions.
There is a good reason, however, why the maxim “where there’s life, there’s hope” has endured since ancient times. Since society is an institution of the living, it must be an institution that promotes life or it risks destroying the very basis for its existence. As President Bush stated on March 31, the day of Schiavo’s death, "The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life." When one person dies according to the will of another, it is the duty of society to intervene. As much as we would rather appeal to the “right to privacy” and leave the whole tragic business to the family, it is a fact of life that one person’s privacy ends where another person’s body begins. If Terri Schiavo did not choose to die, then someone else chose for her. And that should outrage everyone.
Once the need for a social “bias toward life” has been established, the duty of the state to prevent a powerless person from being deliberately starved to death seems clear. Much of the debate in Schiavo’s case has centered on whether Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida legislature, the U.S. Congress, and the President have acted out of line by interfering with the legal process that condemned Schiavo to death. This is certainly an important question. Upholding the power of the judiciary is crucial to the function of American government. But nitpicking about checks and balances is inappropriate and blind when a life is at stake. We should never lose sight of the state’s primary purpose when we are arguing about its particulars, and defending human life is a far more central objective than guarding against any shift in the balance of power. Thus, even “private bills” for intercession into one particular situation, like Congress’s Palm Sunday bill allowing federal courts to review Schiavo’s case, are justified when an innocent citizen’s fundamental rights are at stake.
Most of the official rulings on Schiavo’s case focused on another perceived right—the “right to die.” In the original decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube in 2000, Justice George W. Greer stated that with regard “to quality of life being the primary criteria in artificial life support matters, Americans want to ‘try it for awhile’ but they do not wish to live on it with no hope of improvement. That implicit condition has long since been satisfied in this case.” As a basis for deciding whether Schiavo would live or die, the court thus presented itself with the impossible task of determining what her wishes would have been if she were still competent. When criminals are sentenced to death, their worthiness of capital punishment must be established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, in Schiavo’s case, the word of her husband and two of his family members that she would have preferred to die along with Justice Greer’s foregone conclusion that quality of life should determine its length were enough to condemn her. Those concerned with the right to self-determination and pro-life advocates both should be appalled at such an arbitrary ruling.
A final point: since it has been such a contentious issue and has in fact rendered the debate worldwide, it is worth discussing Terri Schiavo’s Roman Catholic faith. In general, the Church permits its members to refuse the use of extraordinary life-preserving measures, as long as the reason for refusal is not primarily to end life. In March 2004, the pope issued a statement to the effect that supplying nutrition and hydration, even through artificial means, is never to be construed as an extraordinary measure and “should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory.” Although “we should never starve people on purpose” seems a sound principle even for a secular society, I won’t insist upon it. It does seem unjust, however—not to say unconstitutional—that the courts have refused to consider the Schindlers’ plea for their daughter’s right to Free Exercise of this belief in the sanctity of life.
Terri Schiavo’s death was a blow, not only to the convictions of the religious Right, but to the rights of all helpless and dependent persons. In deciding who is too disabled to live, a state, especially our State, rejects the only quality that gives it the claim to rule: “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

What inspired this blog?
Mat 5:16
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.