Friday, January 17, 2014

Life, Death & Governance

You think these are challenging days for the governor of New Jersey? Life is getting especially complicated for the governor of Ohio -- in the myriad meanings of the word.

Ohio Governor John Kasich is well respected by abortion opponents. and last summer signed both restrictive new pro-life laws and what was considered the “most pro-life budget in history.”

But it is not the value of life at its beginning that is increasingly demanding Kasich’s attention; instead it is how, and whether, the state punishes or forgives those who kill.

Early Thursday, Ohio executed the admitted rapist and murderer of an 8-months-pregnant woman. What made this newsworthy, beyond the simple fact of state execution, was the means employed: a new lethal cocktail of drugs, used for the first time with little real sense of how much pain they would inflict or how long they would take to complete the task.

Why is this of interest, on a blog devoted not to politics or criminal justice but to community understanding and perspectives regarding medical ethics? Because of the focus on the continuum of how life is valued in American society, and how prominent the extremes have become.

While Ohio balances its belief in the justice of capital punishment with charges that it lacks a humane means to carry out the executions, hospitals in both California and Texas in recent weeks, and for very different reasons, have mechanically sustained patients determined by doctors to be dead. (Nowhere are end-of-life politics in sharper focus than Texas.)

Pardon the leap, but the most recent study by the Community Ethics Committee, to be submitted soon to the ethics leadership of Harvard Medical School and its teaching hospitals, concerns transparency and decision-making in listing for organ transplantation.

And without going into details of that unfinished study, the very first question we asked ourselves was whether organ transplantation itself is a social good. The answer was yes by consensus -- but only if the organs were ethically harvested, and the selection of recipients both equitable and just.

That is to say, our one-word answer was unanimous but enormously complicated and nuanced.

Consider another case awaiting action by Kasich. The execution of the rapist and murderer of a child was postponed till July while the state determines whether it can take his organs for transplantation, as the man has requested. This would make an executioner of the transplant surgeon.

In this case, is organ transplantation a social good? That is the question facing Kasich, who has been quoted by the Columbus Dispatch as saying: “Ronald Phillips committed a heinous crime for which he will face the death penalty. I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.”

But wait, there’s more, as they say on the ads on cable news channels.

Another prisoner is asking Kasich for clemency. John Wise is not on Death Row, but instead is serving six years for killing his wife, a diabetic with chronic heart disease who was in intensive care following a triple aneurysm. “Although I had nothing but good intentions,” the 68-year-old man said in a sworn statement, “that is no excuse." Mercy is not an acceptable defense for killing in Ohio. 

According to the Associated Press, “A doctor testified that Barbara Wise wasn't terminally ill and appeared to be responding to treatment.” 

The story did not say what, precisely, the doctor meant by “responding to treatment.” I’d like to know more.

Only days before, called doctors “optimistic” about the condition of Jahi McMath, a day after the 13-year-old’s death certificate was signed by a California coroner.

Again, I’d like to know more, because life and death are somehow becoming harder to define, and optimism is not a word I often associate with a corpse. 

(Paul C. McLean, author of "Blood Lines: Fatherhood, faith and love in the time of stem cells," also blogs at


  1. So many issues with no simple answers. Just commenting on one:
    I've always been confused how someone can take a position that human life is sacred, and allow for both capital punishment and prohibiting abortions yet making exceptions in cases of incest or rape . Looking from the point of view of the life in the womb, isn't that life innocent, and who's pleading a case for that life? At least Arkansas takes a consistent position that prohibits abortion and allows no exception. . One of the Ten Commandments reminds us "thou shalt not kill". Perhaps it is most consistent to take a Buddhist position that all life is sacred, and keep compassion for others and doing what we can to relieve their suffering as a priority as we go through life.

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