Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Value of Life

In January of 2006, I read of the death of Nixzmary Brown. I remember reading of her death and then reading about her "life," and crying at my computer. It was around this time that I began, as my husband called it, "shopping for children online." ( 

Nixzmary Brown was only seven years old when she died, weighing 36 pounds. Her small body was in various stages of healing and brokenness, giving evidence of ongoing beatings. Her stepfather is currently on trial for second degree murder, her mother's trial to follow. The facts of the case, as I read them, are heinous. The treatment she received while alive was unconscionable. 

The stepfather's defense attorney, Jeffrey T. Schwartz, is using the defense of putting the victim on trial, saying that Nixzmary was a force of destruction who terrorized her younger siblings. Nixzmary's final act of rebellion (which earned for her the death sentence administered to her by her own parents) was to sneak a yogurt. (Need I remind you that she was a seven year old girl weighing 36 pounds? Undoubtedly she was hungry.) Mr. Schwartz said to the jury, "It's easy to say, 'Aw, he killed the kid and beat her because of yogurt.' Many of us don't have yogurt problems. But when you're poor and you can't afford unlimited amounts of food and you have six children, you have to make sure that everyone gets what they're entitled to get, so that you can ensure that everyone stays healthy." Never mind that beating a child until they're dead certainly isn't ensuring that "everyone stays healthy." I guess a defense attorney is just that - a defense attorney. And once he gets to court he has to say something. And how does one defend the indefensible? 

Both Nixzmary's stepfather and mother are charged with "depraved indifference" to her life. I would suggest that this charge is putting it mildly... but it has me thinking.  

The United States Supreme Court recently heard a case on the death penalty in the good state of Kentucky. The challenge was to Kentucky's method, saying that the three drug concoction they use is possibly cruel and unusual punishment because if the inmate was in pain you wouldn't be able to tell. (Included in the concoction is a drug that induces paralysis.) The New York Times editorial board wrote opinion pieces on the evils of the death penalty, boldly calling for an end to the practice altogether -- presumably feeling great compassion for the inmates on death row. 

I would like to point out that this same editorial board is equally bold in their indignation over the "Partial Birth Abortion Ban." (Which doesn't, in fact, ban late term abortions but simply specifies where the fetus must be located if it's going to be killed.) And equally bold in calling for the death of Terri Schiavo, cloaked in calling for the "sanctity and privacy of family life." Can there be a sanctity of family life without first having a sanctity of life? When you put the cart before the horse, there's no chance of steering it -- if you want to get anywhere at all, you have to just hope it's pointed downhill and close your eyes and ride.

This leads me to the point that in our culture we don't truly place a high value on life. We simply feel compassion for the lives that we consider valuable. And there is an enormous difference. Clearly the editorial board feels that the lives of inmates are very valuable - so much so that they fight (with their writings) to rid the United States of America of the death penalty once and for all. But equally clearly the editorial board does not feel that the lives of the unborn are valuable as they fight for women to retain the right to kill them at will. And the lives of the infirm are also of dubious value. (Dubious because it appears that the value of that life differs depending on circumstances.)

I place a high value on life. This includes all life - including the old, the infirm, the unborn, adults and children, all races, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all human life. It is this value for life, ironically, that leads me to support the death penalty (preferably with a few tweaks and changes to the current system). The death penalty accomplishes two important things: One, it provides a healthy deterrent to some who might otherwise premeditate a serious crime. And two, it offers society an extra measure of safety in that the person who committed the crime(s) deserving of the death penalty will not be let out to commit the crimes again. Supporting the death penalty is, in my view, erring on the side of life. When people get all wrapped up in arguing over an inmate's right to live, we often forget those who have already died because of them and those who could die again once that inmate is paroled... or has escaped. 

It is my view that the United States could easily be charged with "depraved indifference" to life. According to the Guttmacher Institute (a division of Planned Parenthood) 24% of all pregnancies are ended with abortion. In 2002, 1.29 million abortions took place - and from 1973 to 2002 more than 42 million reported legal abortions occurred. Each year, two out of every 100 women aged 15-44 have an abortion; 48% of them have had at least one previous abortion. 

In 1998, the state of Oregon's "death with dignity" law went into effect. Between 1998 and 2005, 246 Oregon patients used this law to hasten their deaths. To comply with the law, physicians are asked to complete a follow-up questionnaire after the patient's death from any cause. Each physician is asked to confirm whether the patient took the prescribed lethal medications. If the patient took the medications, the doctor is asked to report insurance status and enrollment in hospice as well as why the patient requested a prescription (including concerns about the financial impact of the illness, loss of autonomy, decreasing ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable, being a burden, loss of control of bodily functions, uncontrollable pain, and loss of dignity). 

Does any of this seem backwards to anybody besides me? Focusing on "death with dignity" rather than living out one's life with dignity? How can a person end one's own life with dignity? Isn't it much more dignified to live to the fullest possible until one cannot live any longer? Should we really choose as a society to dignify (according to the dictionary: make something seem worthy and impressive) a person's choice to end their own life because they fear being a burden on someone? Or because they fear the financial repercussions of living? Or because they cannot do all the things that they felt made their life enjoyable? Where is the dignity in thinking that way?

Should we as a society be championing any activity that we, on the other hand, hope is "safe, legal, and rare?" How does it make sense to say that anything should be an important and sacred right that should happen rarely? Rights are things that we should be able to embrace fully. If an idea or an action cannot be fully embraced, then one needs to question whether it should really be considered a right. Should any activity that makes the whole of society say, "Tsk, tsk... that's just so sad. I'm so sorry that so-and-so needed to make that choice," be considered a right? Both the right to kill and the right to "die with dignity" are ideas of this nature - and I think that people need to seriously consider them along with all their implications. 

Just as we would never look at Nixzmary Brown's parents and say, "Tsk, tsk... that's just so sad. I'm so sorry that they needed to make that choice to save the rest of their family..." I believe that we should never look at the choice of abortion, "death with dignity," or the Terri Schaivos of this country and say the same. 

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