By now, commentary on Glenn Beck seems superfluous—his views are so patently divorced from reality, but this topic could use some discussion anyway. In this clip, he responds to a blog titled “Is it morally wrong to take a life? Not really, say bioethicists” by Michael Cook. Beck seems unaware that his comments are actually about an article titled “What Makes Killing Wrong?” by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G. Miller in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Cook, of course, is just commenting on the original article. Although the full article by Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller is available online, Beck obviously did not take the time to read it. Or, if he read it, he certainly does not want his listeners to.
Here’s the problem: Hospital Ethics Committees (or other hospital entities) must develop extremely precise procedures for organ harvesting. They do this because they do not believe it is ethical to kill patients for their organs, nor do they want others to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they kill patients for their organs. Sometimes, when someone is dying from an extreme and irreversible injury (such as a gunshot wound to the head), doctors will begin to remove organs only to have a monitor show a heartbeat or two. This event can be disconcerting.
I can see three alternatives here: 1. Turn off the monitors and declare the patient dead (changing the definition of death, if necessary). 2. Wait till there is no chance the heart may beat again and risk losing organs that could save another life. 3. Declare that the patient is alive but that killing the patient is acceptable.
Most ethicists have tended to suggest some variation of the first two options, but Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller think it is more honest to accept the third. If the heart may still beat, they argue that the patient is not dead but that it is morally permissible to kill that patient. The authors also make it more challenging by imagining a patient in this state for an extended time (on a ventilator or other artificial life support).
Unfortunately, their term for a patient in this state is “universally and totally disabled,” meaning that the patient cannot suffer, feel, think, or have any other function associated with being a living human being. Beck seizes on the term “disabled” and suggests they want to kill all the disabled people in the world. Is Beck being dishonest or did he just miss the point? Does it matter to you?
The final issue for Beck is that the authors said mere life is not sacred or we would not be able to pull weeds without violating the sanctity of life. So, Beck and his followers are incensed that they authors compared human life to weeds. But, of course, they did not.
No, Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller went on to distinguish between the sanctity of “life” and of “human life.” They follow the weed comment with this explanation:
“Of course, what people mean when they say ‘Don’t kill’ is ‘Don’t kill humans’ (or maybe ‘Don’t kill sentient animals’). But why then are humans (or sentient animals) singled out for moral protection? The natural answer is that humans (and sentient animals) have greater abilities than plants, and those abilities give human lives more value. Humans can think and make decisions as well as feel (an ability that they share with sentient animals). But if these abilities are what make it immoral to kill humans (but not weeds), then what really matters is the loss of ability when humans (but not weeds) are killed. And then the view that human life is sacred does not conflict with—and might even depend on—the view that what makes life sacred (if it is) is ability, so the basic moral rule is not ‘Don’t kill’ but is instead ‘Don’t disable’.”
To be sure, the article in the Journal of Medical Ethics is provocative, and articles in ethics journals should be provocative. Many bioethicists, doctors, and lay people will disagree that killing is ever acceptable. Discussion of this issue is needed and welcome. Distortions, flag waving, and hysteria are not.