The Self-Interested Motive Behind Euthanasia

In Lawrence MA, Judge Richard E. Welch III sentenced Kristen LaBrie to 8 to 10 years in prison for assault and battery on a child, reckless endangerment of a child, and the attempted murder of her 9 year old son. LaBrie was charged for withholding life-saving cancer treatment from her son Jeremy, who was autistic and developmentally disabled. Jeremy went through a series of painful in-patient chemotherapy treatments. But LaBrie has said she withheld medications for him at home for months. By spring 2007, doctors realized that the cancer, which had been in remission, had returned in the form of leukemia. LaBrie, then a single mother, lost custody of Jeremy to his father, and the boy died in hospice care, his father by his side. . . . . . LaBrie, who lived in Salem and Beverly, testified during the trial in her own defense that she withheld the medication because she could no longer bear the pain they were causing her son. The mother, who was diagnosed with depression, also said she was overwhelmed and stressed by the workload of caring for an autistic son who needed chemotherapy. At times, she said, she would have to pin him down to administer the treatments. This is a tragic case, to be sure, and LaBrie has appropriately received an outpouring of sympathy from parents who can sympathize with the difficulties...

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Self-Immolation and the End of Fear?

I recall hearing the stories of individuals who immolated themselves as an act of protest during the Vietnam war, and as a Christian ethicist interested in civil and political engagement and activism, I have always found this practice morally problematic and practically unhelpful.  However, a recent video that I watched about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who lit himself on fire after suffering repeated injustices at the hands of corrupt government officials, has given me pause to reconsider the phenomenon.  (NB: I have not undertaken a more in-depth theological or ethical analysis of the practice, nor am I suggesting that anyone should go out and try it, but it seems worth thinking about to me.) Click here to watch the video:  The End of Fear (This picture of then president, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, visiting Bouazizi in the hospital is so full of paradox and irony that it hardly needs comment.) As the title of the video indicates, one man’s act of desperation unwittingly sparked a revolution in which by now millions in the Arab and/or Muslim world have set aside their fear, risked their lives, and are demanding the end of unjust, autocratic regimes.  (Let’s just add Syria to the list today).  There is certainly much to ponder in this act.  And on a related note, if such an act can be the end of fear for...

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Newborn & Addicted

Addiction is a complex medical and social reality. Discussions of addiction often center around one of three different conversations: sale of illegal drugs and trafficking, long-term drug addiction in adults (whether illegal drugs like heroin or alcoholism), or teenage drug use. However, within medical ethics, the the ethics of  long-term pain management and addiction to prescribed pain killers is a growing concern. Treating a patient addicted to medically prescribed-prescription drugs is always ethically complex for medical professionals. Nowhere is this question more acute or more ambiguous then in the case of a pregnant patient. What should a doctor or nurse do when faced with a pregnant patient addicted to prescribed pain medication like Oxycontin or in a program for Methadone maintenance? A recent NY Times Article, Newly Born and Addicted to Painkillers, The mother got the call in the middle of the night: her 3-day-old baby was going through opiate withdrawal in a hospital here and had to start taking methadone, a drug best known for treating heroin addiction, to ease his suffering. . . . As prescription drug abuse ravages communities across the country, doctors are confronting an emerging challenge: newborns dependent on painkillers. While methadone may have saved Tonya’s pregnancy, her son, Matthew, needed to be painstakingly weaned from it.” Focusing on a hospital in Maine, the article examines the difficult choices the few doctors who agree to treat pregnant women...

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Helping Kobe Bryant Become More Virtuous

Virtue ethics is sometimes viewed as the antithesis of a more rule-based, deontological ethics. The latter tends to emphasize principles, rules, and punishment, while the former talks more about character development and good moral qualities. But those in the virtue ethics camp, and I consider myself one of them, often forget how important law and punishment are for the formation of virtue. I was thinking about this when I read that the NBA fined Kobe $100,000 for uttering a “gay slur” which commissioner David Stern called “offensive and inexcusable.” “While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated,” he [Stern] said. “Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000. Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society.” Kobe, whose PR people are probably the best in the world, immediately issued a statement, apologizing for his mistake and any offense he caused the gay community. He appealed to the emotional nature of the game as the source of the comment, and not any sort of actual feelings he harbors towards those in the gay community. Bryant was asked if he knew what he did was wrong after he uttered the phrase that got him in trouble. “I was thinking about the game. I wasn’t thinking about...

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Steady as She Goes: Reflections on the Palm Sunday Readings

They were the strangest, most decent family I had ever met, and just about everyone in our parish agreed.  I used to see them, sometimes just one alone, sometimes as a family, biking everywhere they went in town – rain or snow, hot or cold, a simple trip to the grocery store or heading to Mass on Easter Sunday.  I could always tell it was him when I would see him far ahead of me on the road; that same, slow, rhythmic, consistent pedal speed; back perfectly erect, looking serenely straight ahead, seemingly in no hurry but clearly mindful of where he was going; unfettered by wind, rain, or snow (he would have made a model mail man).  Sometimes my interactions with him and his family were awkward (OK, frequently they were awkward); and yet, I always came away feeling bewildered by how such seemingly strange people always had the effect of both calming my anxieties, and at the same time challenging me to set aside my own judgments and appreciate the steady, consistent virtue that they exemplified.  There is no other word to describe my interactions with them than “bewildering.” Today’s readings take us to the beginning of the heart of the Christian mystery – the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  In the procession at the beginning of the Palm Sunday liturgy we hear the story from...

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Ya Can’t Have One Without the Other: Subsidiarity Again

Is it contrary to the principle of subsidiarity for a school principal to ban homemade lunches, my colleague Jana Bennett asks? Should there be a national ban on incandescent lightbulbs? These questions are not earth-shaking. But they are extremely important for establishing a Catholic social teaching that actually “works” – that actually applies to our day-to-day evaluation of systems. I wanted to write a separate post because the problem here begins when subsidiarity is deployed as a principle apart from solidarity. Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate (#57): The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need. I argue nearly the same thing in an (earlier!) essay in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, on CST and modern politics: that solidarity and subsidiarity together function as the key principles. How might we apply these in the cases above? I think two rules are necessary. First, we should recognize that subsidiarity is not a free-standing principle about “size,” but rather a principle that protects against “demeaning” or “paternalist” laws. Is any “lower” group harmed by these rules? As Jana points out, the law makes exceptions for those who demonstrate particular dietary rules....

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Subsidiarity and the Case of the Missing Lunch

I’m fond of telling my students that pretty much anything should be considered a “moral theology” question. (They don’t often believe me.) Consider the news headlines about the ban on homemade lunches. My knee jerk reaction was to think “How unfair! Parents ought to be able to decide what their kids eat.” Except that then I have second, and I believe better and more rational thoughts, for it turns out that the “homemade” lunches mentioned in the article consist in cheetos, sodas, and other processed foods. Should we care about this or is this truly a problem for the parents alone? On one hand, these foods are cheaper and more enjoyable for kids, making this a win-win situation for many parents. On the other hand, associations (though not causations, as researchers are careful to note) routinely show up in studies – links between nutrition and child obesity (and with it, the rise in obesity-related diseases), and nutrition and one’s ability to do well in school. So the principal decided to take it upon herself to ban them except in cases of medical necessity. Granted that parents who object could likely find studies that support the opposite claims (as is usually the case when it comes to scientific studies), it is the principal in this case who has the authority to ban the lunches from her school. She’s apparently not...

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The Death Penalty, Natural Law, and the Task of Moral Theology

There is an interesting debate over at First Things between Joe Carter and David Bentley Hart on the legitimacy of the death penalty. For both Carter and Hart, the sticking point concerns how Scripture should be read and applied on this matter. I am not so much interested in how they both read Scripture, nor am I really concerned here with the debate over capital punishment per se (though I would tend to agree with Hart over Carter), but rather, in Hart’s dismissal of natural law reasoning as helpful in making a moral case. At the beginning of his post, Hart writes, He [Carter] does make a passing reference to the dictates of natural law—at second hand, by way of Edward Feser—but I think that can be largely ignored. To be perfectly frank, most natural law arguments on the matter are hopelessly ad hoc constructions, consisting in prescriptions unconvincingly and willfully attached to endlessly contestable descriptions (that’s an argument for another time, though, when the Thomists have all already had their coffee). But, even if capital punishment is entirely in keeping with natural justice (and I am more than willing to grant that it is), that has next to no bearing whatsoever on how Christians should understand their moral obligations with regard to it. Hart goes on to show all the ways in which the New Law radically departs...

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