A Human Life is More Than Just a Heartbeat

Consider this profile of NPR reporter Diane Rehm, in which she relates the harrowing story of her husband's final days:

His Parkinson's disease had become unbearable. “He just kept getting weaker,” the NPR host told NBC News. “We called in the doctor and John said to him: `I am ready today.' He said `I can no longer use my legs, I can no longer use my arms, I can no longer feed myself.' And knowing with Parkinson's it is going to get worse rather than better, he said `I wanted to die.'” He asked the doctor for help.

The answer they got surprised and disappointed both of them. “The doctor said `I cannot do that legally, morally or ethically',” Rehm said. “He said `I don't disagree with your wish that you could die with the help of a physician but I cannot do it in the state of Maryland.'”

John Rehm had to deliberately die by dehydration. It took nine days.

It is hard to imagine anything more devaluing of human life than to force someone to persist in that condition. A life is more than just a heartbeat, and death can come well before that heartbeat stops. What kind of person could think that what happened to John Rehm was the morally correct outcome?

A person like the Discovery Institute's Wesley Smith, apparently. He read the Rehm profile, but did not see a terrible story of human suffering. No, what he saw was an insidiously biased contribution to a political debate:

[Diane] Rehm has responded by promoting the legalization of doctor-prescribed death. A recent profile of her by NBC focused solely on the pro assisted suicide side, giving no voice to those who warn against legalization. In the story’s telling, John's suicide was necessary. The only question should be how best to get it done.

It is a profound disservice to the gravity of this issue that the media give scandalously short shrift to the many stories of people who find meaning and hope in life even as they grapple with the anguish of profound disabilities. But the stories are not hard to find—if only journalists were as interested in promoting hope as they are assisted suicide.

Smith worries about profound disservices being done to “the gravity of this issue.”. Personally, I'm more bothered by profound disservices being done to human dignity. His abstract musings about hope and meaning amount to nothing in the face of actual terminal illnesses like the one faced by John Rehm. There was no hope in his condition, and there is no meaning to existing in a state where you can do nothing but wait helplessly for your heart to stop, contemplating everything you've lost.

I don't know where Smith got the idea that the media gives short shrift to stories of people who overcome physical adversity. Such stories are pretty much a staple of television talk shows and newspaper human interest stories. It is the cruelty we visit on the terminally ill that needs exposure, not least because people like Smith are out there arguing that they should be robbed of their dignity and autonomy. Worse, that it is morally necessary to rob them.

As callous as I find Smith's essay, he is a model of empathy compared to David Klinghoffer, also of the Discovery Institute. In this post he writes:

Whether the context is biology or cosmology, the ultimate issue at stake in the controversy over origins is the picture we carry around in our mind of what a human being is, what a human life is worth. There are two paradigms. They are mutually exclusive and separated by a vast gulf.

Either your life is of ultimate value, possessing unique dignity, potentially cast in the image of a transcendent designer and thus awesomely precious.

Or human life is not special, hardly more valuable -- or indeed not one bit more valuable -- than animal or plant life. Why? Because all life is equally the product of blind, uncaring forces, tossed up from the mixing of materials at random, to be “selected” by dumb, callous nature for survival and propagation, nothing more.

Most of that's pretty stupid. In fact, it's just a clear-cut illustration of the genetic fallacy. Answers about our origins have no implications at all for questions of meaning and value. Arising through blind, uncaring forces in no way implies that life is not awesomely precious, and being made in the image of a transcendent designer in no way implies that it is.

But I agree completely that the picture we carry in our mind of what a human being is, is very important. That's precisely why I find the position of Smith and Klinghoffer so offensive.

I always find it surprising that the people most keen to persuade us that life is more than just a physical phenomenon are nonetheless obsessed with the physical processes of life. In the debate over abortion this attitude manifests itself in the statement that human life begins at conception. (When extra absurdity seems called for, they will add that this is an established scientific fact.) Of course, conception is the moment when all of the genes needed for producing a human being are assembled into one place. That's morally relevant only if you think a human being is nothing more than the sum total of its genes.

In the debate over assisted suicide this attitude manifests itself in the notion that a human being is nothing more than a heartbeat, or some minimal level of physical function.

People find value and meaning for themselves in all sorts of ways. In general I would say that value and meaning are found through the relationships you form with other people (or the potential for such relationships in very young children). Value and meaning arise naturally from your interactions with the people you affect, and the people who affect you. They are found through professional accomplishments, through family, or through your effect on your community. A severely handicapped person can still engage in such relationships, and pain can be borne when such relationships are part of your life.

Sometimes, though, a point is reached where you become so physically debilitated that everything that gave you meaning and value is taken from you. Not temporarily, but forever. There is nothing in your future but physical pain and helplessness and further, relentless disintegration. That is the point at which a human life has ended, regardless of whether your heart is still beating.

And here's the point: Everyone has to decide for themselves when that point is reached. People like Smith and Klinghoffer have no business holding forth on the meaning of anyone's life but their own. When a mentally competent person like John Rehm decides he has reached that point, it is not for them to say that he's wrong, let alone use the power of the law to overrule him.

Human life is, indeed, awesomely precious. That's why it's so important to recognize that it's so much more than just a heartbeat, and that a living death is not a contradiction in terms.

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Jason, "the genetic fallacy" is judging an argument based on who first made it. "Answers about our origins have no implications at all for questions of meaning and value." Now that requires an argument to back it up.

The legalization of doctor-assisted suicide leads to doctor-prescribed patient termination. That is what is happening in European countries who have gone down this path.

"Now that requires an argument to back it up."

A classic example of shifting the burden of proof. The Discovery side assumes, without any argument whatsoever, the implication from evolution to the lack of value of human life. I guess this implication is so ingrained in their thinking, almost a reflex, that they don't realize it's a non sequitur.

As it happens, the post itself provides a counter-argument to this implication. But the burden to show that "evolution ==> human life is without value" is really on the side that makes it in the first place.

By Michael Weiss (not verified) on 29 Jul 2014 #permalink

It is especially disgusting that people like those at the DI exercise more sympathy toward terminally ill pets than they do people.

The legalization of doctor-assisted suicide leads to doctor-prescribed patient termination. That is what is happening in European countries who have gone down this path.

I've heard it's caused hens to stop laying eggs and cows to stop giving milk. (There's as much evidence for those things as there is for what you assert.)

Commenting was offline for most of the afternoon, due to maintenance on the site. Happily, everything is restored now!


Jason, “the genetic fallacy” is judging an argument based on who first made it.

No. That's just one example of the genetic fallacy. In general the genetic fallacy is when you judge the present value of something based on its origins. That's precisely what Klinghoffer was doing in the passage I quoted.

As for your claim about doctor-prescribed death, whatever that means, these sort of horror stories never seem to hold up under scrutiny. From my perspective, I would have to be convinced that it's a very slippery slope before I would change my views on this issue.

Does "doctor-prescribed patient termination" happen without the patient's consent? If not, then it's just another term for assisted suicide.

The problem here is you run right into the right to lifers saying that quality of life does not matter what matters is solely being alive. Being from the religious side a lot of these folks do not think that one has a right to suicide, but must endure whatever god has in his plan for you. (Even if that includes measures that did not exist 100 years ago).

Unless the god’s plan is for you to commit suicide ...

Writing as one who has had 5 surgeries and a bunch of chemotherapy over the last several years, I have zero sympathy for the claim that I cannot choose the time and manner of my own damned death. But I cannot, not in this state. And so I'll somehow acquire the means, and when the time comes, I'll use them.

Klinghoffer invokes an unexplained and incoherent concept of "ultimate" value. What could "ultimate" value be? How can anything have value apart from its value to someone who values it? And value to someone (even God) is just ordinary value. Why would should my being made (and valued) by a transcendental maker be relevantly different from my being made (and valued) by my parents? Why does one create "ultimate" value, but not the other? Of course, no answers to such questions are forthcoming from Klinghoffer.

To put it colloquially, it's just mind over matter: if anyone minds, then it matters (has value). We value ourselves and other people more than we value plants, and it's in that sense that we are more valuable than plants. What other coherent sense of "value" or "valuable" can there be? Money only has value because people value it and are willing to accept it. Confederate dollars ceased to have value after the Civil War because no one would accept them, not because they had some intrinsic or "ultimate" value which was supernaturally tied to the existence of a Confederate government. We don't need to money to have "ultimate" value for it to be important. And we don't need our lives or other people's to have "ultimate" value to care about them. We don't need no steenkin' "ultimate" value!

By Richard Wein (not verified) on 30 Jul 2014 #permalink

Jason: Excellent framing with "heartbeat" and "conception... collection of genes." Both of those are useful when these debates come up.

Lyle @ 7: "[you] must endure whatever god has in his plan for you." That's the deep structure of the arguement. Our opponents won't admit it, but out goal should be to box them into a corner where they have to, and if they still won't, then we should bring it up and put it right in their faces: "Do you believe this? Yes or no."

As for me, I know of a couple of painless ways to exit the scene, and will be sure to have the means at my fingertips if the circumstances ever make it necessary.