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Dec 02

How Not to Go Dutch

A Dutch hospital now has a protocol for euthanizing ill babies (thanks Drudge), and evidently this has been happening on the sly for some time, which is no surprise, given that the Dutch have a bad track record with reporting and enforcing adult euthanasia laws (which again were legislated only after euthanasia had a wide following in that country–see the excellent chapters on the Netherlands in The Case Against Assisted Suicide).

Many will be rightfully horrified, but to those horrified folk who are pro-choice, I ask: why not? What's the magic difference between a 1st-trimester abortion, a partial-birth abortion, and infanticide? I've heard various justifications, but I think it basically boils down to three positions. Let's see how these would help us hold off atrocities like what goes on in the Dutch medical system. The positions are:

1. Human personhood begins at conception when a unique organism is formed. This is the classical pro-life position.

2. Utilitarianism: personhood is negotiable, and a person does not have rights so much as a person's ability to feel pain or well-being is balanced against other people's interest. Given that a woman generally has more capacity to feel pleasure or pain on a psychological level than a newborn or a fetus, her and society's (which may not want another mouth to feed) interests may trump those of the child. Peter Singer of Princeton is of this group, for instance.

3. Developmentalism: According to this school, personhood is not inherent at conception, but rather requires only that a human organism attain a certain level of maturity. Here's where I find the developmentalists vulnerable: if you wish to make neural development, the capacity to feel pain, or just a sheer balancing of competing interests, fine, but I find it hard to draw a line through some stage of an organism's development (which is a continuum) and say that something magic happens at that point. Those who do draw lines in a human's development strike me as funny since they often consider platform # 1 above to be the religious platform (being the Vatican's teaching and the pro-life position as a whole), whereas I find the idea of a dividing line at some stage of neural development or during gastrulation (often with little justification) requiring much more faith than position 1. This does not mean that reasonable people cannot believe that personhood is a negotiable concept, just that they reason so on the grounds of personal interest, utility, or some such criterion besides a random line drawn in the sand–er, cytoplasm–that somehow divides the people from the potential people.

(One note: the gastrulation criterion for personhood is interesting since prior to that stage the embryo may split into identical twins. Thus, before gastrulation, an embryo is not quite an individual (according to this one argument) since it may form two distinct organisms. I don't buy this, but it is a less arbitrary line in the cytoplasm than the other criteria I've read about. I think I may work on a separate posting about this claim once schoolwork is over, so we can focus on that issue by itself. In the meantime, I hope this posting is profitable on its own for the blog's readers!)

Now to bring this back to the Netherlands case. If we as a society subscribe to position two above, the child's rights are always being balanced against other people's interest, and if the tribe votes you off the island (so to speak), that's that. Granted, if you're reasonably healthy and so forth, you'll be okay, but the youngest and oldest of society are vulnerable. In position three, when you peg personhood to some developmental milestone, as I said, you often are banking on a very shaky criterion, and people may redefine it later. Position three will therefore often wind up evolving in position two.

Position two sounds very enlightened and everything, what with balancing conflicting interests, but if that's all your ethical system does, what happens if people decide that you are impeding their utility and sucking up resources that they wish to use elsewhere? Unlike the Judeo-Christian ethics or an ethical system like Kant's, there is no transcendent gold standard of human action; utilitarianism is a procedural philosophy. Therefore, if people dot their i's and cross their t's and decide that someone's life is not worth living, then that's that.

We're left with position one; it may not be the most convenient philosophy of times, but if the Dutch make your stomach lurch, remember that "ideas have consequences", to quote Richard Weaver. I do not think that any theory of personhood will give us a reliable intellectual and legal basis for protecting society against such a corruption of medicine.

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