30 March 2005

Two federal court decisions; updates on the Schiavo case

As reported in The New York Times:

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Tuesday that Title IX protects those who bring sex discrimination complaints, even if they are not directly discriminated against in the usual sense (story and opinion (pdf)). Justice O'Connor wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg, and Breyer; Justice Thomas' dissent was joined by Justices Kennedy and Scalia, and Chief Justice Rehnquist. The Bush administration (surprisingly) sided with the good guys.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed early Wednesday to reconsider Terri Schiavo's case, as brought by her parents Mary and Bob Schindler (story). The same court has twice told the Schindlers that the Florida state court did not commit any due process, etc., errors; this time it seems that they're reconsidering all the facts of the case. They have not announced a timeframe, and hopefully (if only to get this all over with, and to not draw out Schiavo's death any longer) the Court will not rule that the feeding tube should be temporarily reinserted.

Update, clarification, and further thoughts: It seems the Times continues to read too much into court decisions. According to their story this morning (as opposed to AP's story last night, linked above), the 11th Circuit has simply extended the time that the Schindlers have to file an appeal, since they missed Saturday's deadline. The Appeals Court has not said whether they will actually hear the case, or given any indication that they will decide any differently from previous rulings, when they have agreed with Judge Greer and found against the Schindlers.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has publicly sided with the Schindlers on this, joining the President and leading Republicans. He seems sincerely concerned about the negative impact Greer's and higher courts' decisions could have on America's disabled and alter-abled communities, and talks about this as a "civil rights issue". I agree that this is a worry, and if I thought it would be so detrimental as to trump the need for the Government and doctors to try to meet Schiavo's wishe's, as best they can establish them, then I would follow him. As it is, however, I still trust Judge Greer's finding that Schiavo would rather be allowed to die.

One other concern that hasn't been mentioned much (at all?) in the popular media: Schiavo's heart stopped due to a potassium deficiency, probably caused by an eating disorder. It's entirely possible that she and her husband had a not-entirely-positive (might I even suggest abusive?) relationship, and it's equally possible that her parents didn't take the best care of her (given how abuse works, those would go hand in hand if true). I don't want allegations to go far; I bring this up to mention that in similar cases, we should be careful that parents and spouses who abused and controlled people in life don't continue to control them in death.

Further Update: A three-judge panel declined to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube, and in a ten-to-to ruling, the entire 11th Circuit rejected the request. Moreover, the very Republican-leaning Judge Stanely Birch, a member of the 11th Circuit, found that the request had no standing in federal court, because Congress's laws allowing the Schindlers federal standing were unconstitutional:
"When the fervor of political passions moves the executive and legislative branches to act in ways inimical to basic constitutional principles, it is the duty of the judiciary to intervene," wrote Judge Birch, who has a reputation as consistently conservative. "If sacrifices to the independence of the judiciary are permitted today, precedent is established for the constitutional transgressions of tomorrow." (From the Times)
Oh, and while singing his praises, Florida Governor Jeb Bush compared the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Richard Nixon.

The End, hopefully: Terri Schiavo died at 9am ET on Thursday, 31 March. In the Times' story is a nice overview of the entire fifteen-year-long case, and they provide various slideshows of her life. It's interesting that a person who's only claim to fame is a bulemia-induced potassium defficiency would garner such national attention and sympathy.

Hey, there's an idea. Let's set up a Terri Schiavo foundation that focuses on bulemia and other eating disorders. Eating disorders ravage the country and lead to all range of health problems; among women and men they pose a public health risk. Eating disorders are closely tied to broader psychological issues in the afflicted persons' lives, and a good anti-anorexia organization would work to help people be happier about there lives (as opposed to just convincing them that they don't need to diet), so that they don't use controlling their bodies as a coping mechanism for feeling like they have no control over the rest of their lives.

But the Schindlers and Schiavos are good Catholics (so much so that the Pope, in addition to the President, became involved in the case), and given how much the Vatican hates women, and especially the feminists who might run such an organization, there's no chance that the national attention will funnel into solving big problems.

Bibles during juries' deliberations: People vs. Harlan

The Colorado State Supreme Court Monday upheld a lower court's ruling, reversing the 1995 sentence of Robert Harlan who was convicted of raping and murdering one woman and crippling another. He had been sentenced to death; the Supreme Court found that the jury's deliberations were problematic, and changed his sentence to life in prison without parole.

In general I support courts who reverse capital punishment sentences. Even in cases of rape and murder, I don't support the death sentence. I expect to write more about such issues here as this blog progresses --- questions surrounding the death penalty are central to the areas of ethics I'd like to discuss --- but what's interesting about this case is the argument through which the Court denied the execution. (As an aside, I'd like to mention that if given the choice between life in prison without parole and execution, I'd pick execution. I think that all people should be given personal choice over whether to live.)

Among other jobs of the Colorado Supreme Court is to review death penalty convictions. When they reviewed the case, they were troubled by a number of jurors who, during jury selection, said that they supported capital punishment for all first-degree murder convictions. Colorado law does not require that sentence, and the judge made it clear to the jurors that they were not to consider any information other than that which was presented in the courtroom, and that they are to follow the laws as interpreted by the judge, whether they agree with them or not. Of course, when considering sentencing, jurors must make "individual moral assessments", but a death sentence must be unanimous, and based on the facts and arguments presented in the courtroom. Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected Harlan's allegations of racial bias, and despite reservations upheld his sentencing.

As Harlan sat on death row, his lawyers continued to investigate the verdict, and interviewed five jurors. They had been deliberating without a decision on Friday (of whatever week), and recessed for the night. Upon returning to their rooms, at least one of the jurors studied the Judeo-Christian Bible, and highlighted a few passages relating to the death penalty. Upon returning to deliberations, she (and maybe others) brought her Bible with her, and pointed out these passages to a fellow juror, as part of convincing her to vote for a death sentence. It's that action, it seems, that made the Supreme Court reverse its earlier decision and find that the original sentencing was in error.

I think the New York Times' coverage of this case is a little misleading. It's not just that referencing the Bible isn't allowed --- Harlan's lawyers talked about the Bible, and certainly as a juror I should be allowed to base part of my "individual moral assessment" on the Bible if that forms part of my "individual morality". The problem is that the aid of outside influences like the Bible (which does not accurately interpret Colorado law) might prejudice jurors towards a ruling they wouldn't otherwise make. In this case, that was the finding of the majority.

The dissent, of course, dissents. Rice writes
Since inquiry into the jury’s deliberations is prohibited except to determine whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jurors’attention, CRE 606(b), we would ordinarily assess the impact of the extraneous information by considering its likely impact on a"typical"jury. See, e.g., People v. Wadle, 97 P.3d 932, 935 (Colo. 2004). However, in this case, each of the twelve jurors testified not only about whether extraneous information was brought into the jury room, but also about what impact, if any, the presence of a Bible in the jury room had on those deliberations. As a result, there is no need to assess the impact of the biblical passages on a "typical"jury. Rather, we know from the sworn testimony of the jurors themselves that not even one of the jurors was influenced by these biblical passages to vote for the death penalty, and thus, the biblical passages were not prejudicial to Harlan. Even so, I also am certain that there is no reasonable possibility that a typical jury would be prejudiced by exposure to the biblical passages at issue here.
(my italics). Of course, many jurors were informed by their study of the Bible, just as many individuals base their ethics in part on the Bible, so I take the passage to mean that no one was further influenced by the bibles' presence in the room. (This quote, and in fact the Court's entire opinion, are available on the Colorado Bar Association's website under No. 03SA173. People v. Harlan.)

It's not clear to me what to make of the majority's position. I understand their arguments: the law is very clear that jurors are not to bring in any "extraneous information" except for "common knowledge", and these bibles may have unfairly prejudiced people, and come dangerously close to being an extralegal justice code. Besides, the Court was already nervous about this sentencing for a number of reasons, and this might have been enough of a straw to break the figurative camel's back. Besides, I should be happy about any time a Court stays an execution, right?

And yet, I worry that this ruling sets a dangerous precedent, dissuading jurors from thinking about religious morals. If we are to trust our jurors to make "individual moral assessments" at all, it seems that we have to allow them to draw guidance from religious texts (even if, in this case, I think they misinterpreted it). And I very much hope I can trust people, and especially jurors, to make generally good moral decisions.

One of my roommates expressed the broader issue well. Should a jury be understood as a sample of the population, in which case we should encourage jurors to explore their individual moral codes, or should a jury speak for the entire population (and its democratically constructed government and laws), in which case it seems more reasonable to ask jurors to keep their deliberations strictly to the laws and facts as presented in the courtroom?

27 March 2005

The role of the anthropic question in theoretical physics

Scientific inquiry generally asks questions that fall into two broad categories: (i) Describe the world we live in, and (ii) List all possible worlds. These questions can, of course, inform each other --- an answer to (i) better be on the list in (ii), and if (ii) only ends up finding one possible world, then that better be the answer to (i) --- and different disciplines specialize in one or the other of the two questions. Psychology and botany, for instance, seem basically interested in question (i), whereas "pure" math and literature seem mostly interested in (ii). To a physicist, the chemist who figures out all possible ways for carbons to fit together into cholesterol-like chemicals is certainly answering question (i), whereas to a pharmacist that same chemist is investigating question (ii). (I'd be interested to know the chemist's take.) Both questions should be guided by empirical as well as theoretical arguments; traditionally intelligent people tried to answer both questions without recourse to empirical data, and many still try to answer question (ii) that way. Paying attention to the empirical world is important both to guide our questioning --- a poorly-stated version of question (ii) might lead to the answer "anything" --- and to remind us of when we're inappropriately generalizing from what we're used to (as when, for example, a mathematician assumes that induction works without nuance for infinite entities).

Modern physics, it seems, sometimes confuses these two questions. Or, perhaps, it fails to keep these questions in mind, and that's why physicists occasionally ask poorly-formed questions that do not fall into either class. Most notably in this regard is what I'll call the "anthropic question", which loosely asks why it is that our universe would happen to support life.

There are a number of assumptions wrapped into this anthropic question that I'd like to elucidate. We have first a very important (and clearly true) answer to question (i) above: our universe supports (intelligent) life. This may or may not be remarkable; there is quite a lot of debate on whether it is, and my position is not as simple as one might like. The anthropic question, however, assumes that it is remarkable that there is life here. It bases this opinion (can a question actively hold an opinion?) on an observation from the modern answer to question (ii): within a general modern-physics framework there seem to be around twenty different parameters, all of which must be finely tuned to support our kind of life. Thus one can construct a not-entirely-cogent argument for why the existence of life is remarkable: for each parameter there is a fairly low probability that a random in universe it would have the right value, so the chance that a random universe supports life is exceedingly low.

There are a number of fallacies with the anthropic question and its proposed answers (which come in two main and not-necessarily-contradictory flavors: "design" and "multiverse"). One of these is a lack of imagination: certainly it's the case that carbon-based, terran-style life is exceedingly unlikely, but SF writers like Greg Egan have proved quite adept at constructing extremely alien intelligent life, so it's not unreasonable to think that radically different universes could also support intelligent life --- in fact, I am a firm believer that there is a suitably broad definition of intelligent life such that there is non-Terran intelligent life in this universe, but that it is so alien, possibly with different understandings of space and time from ours, that we won't recognize it as life for at least quite a while.

This objection is not deep, however. It's remarkable enough that our universe supports carbon chemistry; most universes don't. In fact, current models hold that supporting any kind of chemistry is remarkable: most universes don't last long enough to support anything at all, or expand so fast that all there is is a thin gas of hydrogen. So let's rephrase that anthropic question: how is it that this universe happens to support carbon chemistry? Such a universe is so unlikely that perhaps its existence should lead us to various metaphysical conclusions.

In fact, no such conclusions are possible, as has been argued strongly by scholars like Stephen Jay Gould. Because we are only asking the question because _we_ are living in this universe. Those trying to argue from the improbability of a given universe supporting carbon-chemistry life try to rigidly define this universe: "Rigidly label this universe A. A priori it's very unlikely that a specific universe would support carbon-chemistry life. Thus, the existence of a carbon-chemistry-supporting universe is much higher given a metaphysics that includes an intelligent designer or a multiverse, as opposed to a singular-universe metaphysics. Arguing from Bayesians, then, the existence of a universe that supports carbon chemistry greatly increases our credence in a multiverse or an intelligent designer. And here's a universe A which does support carbon chemistry."

As tight as this argument seems, it fails, in large part because we cannot rigidly label our universe. Even our language shows this fallacy: one always remarks on the unlikelyhood that "our universe" contains life. Of course our universe would contain our style of life; if not, we wouldn't notice it. If someone notices some other universe that contains some other kind of life, that's cause for surprise, rejoicing, and more studies, but not because it influences much our metaphysical credences (it would, of course, lend more weight to some sort of multiverse hypothesis, if only because then there would be at least two universes, and infinitely many universes seems much more likely than two).

In fact, I argue that a priori there is nothing remarkable about our universe containing our style of life. To make this position clearer, I'd like to argue by analogy with, say, planets.

There are trillions of celestial bodies in the galaxy, and at least a million planets, most of which, current data suggests, do not support Terran-style life. In fact, it would be remarkable if many planets (like in Star Trek) did support Terran life, given that modern astrobiology and ecology studies show that there are many parameters on which planets vary, and they must be "fine-tuned" for life to be particularly favorable. For a random planet to independently evolve Terran-style life, as I assume it did here on Terra, is even more unlikely, so unlikely in fact that if we find carbon-chemistry life on other planets I will assume that either it is genetically related to Earth life (for example, Earth and Mars trade rocks all the time, so it's not unreasonable for us to find carbon-based microbes on Mars that share a common ancestor with those on Earth), or that this universe is endowed with an extremely uncreative God. That's right: the existence of Earth-style extraterrestrial life would increase my belief in the existence of a Creator, and decrease my respect for It.

Yes, it would be remarkable if a random planet evolved Terran-style life. But Terra is not a random planet --- far from it: Terra is exactly the planet on which life evolved. What would be truly remarkable is if non-Earth-style life evolved on Earth. Imagine finding a species that has evolved on a planet it is exactly not suited for. Now _that_ would be surprising. (Similarly remarkable would be if we lived in a universe that didn't support life. If, for example, the physicists answer question (i) by showing conclusively that the universe collapsed a few seconds after the Big Bang, then we would have some explaining to do.)

No one seriously wonders why they happened to be born in the country in which they were born, as opposed to some other country, and the answer to why my hair happens to be brown is not that there are lots of people, and so the chances of fine-tuned hair are high. The people who study hair color are interested in other kinds of mechanisms, like the chemistry of hair dies and the biology of genetics, and maybe the social pressures that select for certain colors. There are interesting historical reasons that lead to certain people being in and having kids in certain countries, but to ask a question about why one person in particular was born in a certain place, does that increase the chances that there are other planets or countries or gods?, presupposes too much metaphysics. (Why God chose to create this universe may be an interesting question if you already assume that there's a God, but otherwise it doesn't make much sense.)

There's a problem, however, with this version of the anthropic principle, the version that argues that the anthropic question is uninteresting, because we will always live in a universe that can support our kind of life, and that is that it's not conventionally falsifiable. No physics experiment can disprove an assertion that something isn't interesting, just like no physics experiment can disprove the existence of God. As little predictive power as has the anthropic question, my position that it is uninteresting has even less predictive power. It is just as useless as a standard ethical relativist position denying the worth of the ethical project.

In fact, the observation that there is life in this universe should inform our answer to question (i). It leads to a series of interesting questions not unrelated to the anthropic question that specifically look for mechanisms that would bring about a universe with life. Some of these mechanisms have been established: biologists have a pretty good understanding of much of Darwinian evolution, and can predict the rates and details that determine how different kinds of selection work, and organic chemists have proposed cogent models of how protocells might have formed from inorganic materials. Astronomers have various theories for the proximate causes that led to an Earth with the right materials and location to support Earth-style life. It would be interesting to know the proximate cosmological mechanisms that led to a life-friendly universe: cosmologists should track the events that gave us a universe of this size and density, and should keep in mind that a (big bang, say, or string) theory that predicts a lifeless universe is probably wrong, or rather not the correct model. One proposal by Lee Smolin, a loop quantum geometer and author of, among other things, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (a very good and deeply philosophical popular physics account of quantum gravity), I find fairly attractive. Smolin observes that Earth-style life and black-hole formation both seem to require similar carbon chemistry, so proposes that universes propagate and evolve analogously to organisms. To wit, Smolin suggests that perhaps black holes spawn universes with similar, but not exactly the same, properties and fundamental constants as have their parents. Thus physics that supports long-living universes with high rates of black-hole formation will be evolutionarily favorable and selected for, and proposes that perhaps complex carbon chemistry is one such trait. This is an eventually testable theory: a deeper understanding of black hole creation will make clearer the role of carbon chemistry (it plays a role in the formation of supermassive stars, from which most black holes come), and a more fundamental understanding of cosmology will determine whether or not universes spawn in black holes, and whether those universes have the same, similar, or radically different physicses. The observation that our universe has this carbon chemistry does not make Smolin's proposal any more likely, but it does play an important role: it inspires Smolin's proposal in the first place.

That's the appropriate role for the anthropic question. Given physical possibilites, one cannot conclude from the existence of life anything about the existence of a multiverse or a creator; existence of life is not evidence for any of these standard metaphysical theories, and we should not increase our credence in them just because we happen to exist. But there is a value to this kind of naive theorizing: consciously thinking about the remarkableness of our own existence can inspire real ideas, like Wheeler's multiverse.

I am, in fact, a fairly firm believer in something like Wheeler's multiverse, but not particularly because of the existence of life. I take it as axiomatic that there exists a Universe (which may contain a Wheeler-like multiverse), that I and everyone else interact with the Universe, and are part of it, and that the Universe has fundamental laws that can be described via aesthetic mathematical formulae, presumably understood as something like a Hamiltonian by the physicists, but which can also be understood in many other mathematical paradigms. The Universe will be in some "mix state", involving lots of different "universes" like ours, in such a way that the expected values of all simple, canonical "observables" (in the quantum sense) will be aesthetic numbers like 0, 1, and e. Given that the expected values of many of the seemingly canonical observables in this universe (the strength of the electric charge, for instance, or the total mass, or the ratio of the amounts of electrically charged and magnetically charged material) are inaesthetic, I would rather believe that we are in an aesthetic multiverse. But that's an aesthetic judgment, heavily biased by an immersion in modern theoretical physics, and not based on any deductive arguments from empirical evidence. Rather, I generalize from a variably aesthetic universe to an axiom that there is an appropriate universal aesthetic on which to judge physics proposals, and that the Universe is fundamentally aesthetic. Without these axioms, the project of theoretical physics seems lost, in the same way that, in order to work on the project of ethics, one must hold as an axiom that there is a real world with other people and that there are real ethical principles to follow.

I am perfectly willing to admit the aesthetics of a universe in which the fundamental laws, or, indeed, mathematics, are inconsistent. It's even possible that such laws don't exist, and that other models and levels of analysis are the only viable ones --- a unified theory won't replace psychology or sociology, which are at least as important descriptions of the universe, but it might complement them. Ultimately, however, the goal of science (as opposed to mathematics and art) should be to answer question (i) with a description of the Universe (at all levels of analysis, with all mechanisms that lead to it, and an appropriate understanding that different descriptions can equally describe the same phenomena on different levels). Question (ii) is important to inform question (i), and is an interesting question on its own right, but just like epistemology is not the ultimate goal of ethical philosophy, a list of possible universes is not the same as a description of the Universe. The chemist who lists all possible hydrocarbons is answering (ii) according to the pharmacist, and (i) according to the physicist, and similarly a string theorist who thinks she is working on (ii) might actually, in a Wheeler multiverse model, be answering (i). The most important value of considering issues like the anthropic questions is the possibility of inspiring new ways to turn answers to question (ii) into an answer to question (i). By itself, however, it cannot select any given answer.

(For a more detailed discussions of anthropic principles, multiverses, observational effects, and philosphy of probability, check out www.anthropic-principle.com. In particular, Nick Bostrom, the site administrator, as published online the first five chapters of his book Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy, available as a pdf. I know have to go to the library to read the other six chapters.)

Two links

While I work on a longer essay on philosophy and physics, I leave you with two recent opinion pieces.

One is a spot-on op-ed from the Washington Post, which I saw in my local paper this morning, on Town of Castle Rock, Colo. vs. Jessica Gonzales, a case before the Supreme Court asking whether the Castle Rock police violated the 14th Ammendment when they ignored Gonzales' legitimate concerns over her daughters' safety after they were kidnapped by her ex-husband. The editorial goes on to talk more generally about the importance of protecting women from domestic abuse. Here's what happens when women try to stop the abuse (27 March 2005)

The other is this week's "What Do You Think" from The Onion. Generally, WDYT is funny but not actively arguing a side; this week it is very clear that the editors of The Onion are enraged about drilling in the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge. The comments are insightful and pointed. Oil Drilling In Alaska (23 March 2005)

20 March 2005

Terri Schiavo and the Government's role in Life and Death

On Wednesday, Judge George Greer, a compassionate conservative in Tampa, FL, ordered Terri Schiavo's feeding tube removed; doctors removed the tube Friday. Judge Greer has overseen the Schiavo case since 1998 --- due to a potassium deficiency probably caused by an eating disorder, her heart stopped briefly and she suffered severe brain damage in 1990, and has been incapacitated since --- and has consistently found conclusive evidence that Schiavo, as her husband alleges, would rather not be kept alive in her current critically brain-damaged and "vegetative" state. For this decision Greer has been forced out of his church and must bring with him police protection wherever he goes. The federal courts has repeatedly refused accepting the case, citing a lack of jurisdiction; in the last few days, just as they try to leave for a two-week Easter recess, many conservative members of Congress have scrapped together a handful of bills and subpoenas designed to keep Schiavo alive long enough to move her case to federal court and grant her parents federal standing. (The Times has a short piece on the subpoenas, and for more detailed discussion of the legal issues, I suggest starting at Balkinization.)

When I first read the news, I was in a more sarcastic mood than I am now, made angrier by the previous day's decision 51-49 by the Senate to open up the ANWR to drilling (and caribou-killing, and Alaskan-native threatening). I went downstairs and started complaining to anyone in the kitchen who would listen. "I would like to say how proud I am of the US House right now," I said, "in their decision to spend untold resources on protecting the life of one brain-dead woman, forcing her to stay alive for now more than a decade. As opposed to, you know, saving hundreds, thousands, millions of lives by, for instance, working to stop the genocide in Darfur, helping the homeless and hungry in this country, making sure that kids aren't kicked out of their homes and into problematic and often drug-filled environments for being gay, or, say, making sure that there are well-funded shelters for battered women, and more generally working to stop domestic violence. No, those issues aren't important, whereas Terri Schiavo is such an important individual that her story belongs in the US House of Representatives and on the front page of the New York Times."

I don't blame the Times. If the House does something like this, I want to know about it. But there is something wrong with putting so much energy into Schiavo. I'm sure the Florida governor and legislature have better things to worry about (although, being Republican-controlled, I'm guessing that they wouldn't be worrying about the things I want them to worry about anyway, like poverty issues, voting rights, and how to most easily naturalize the many currently-illegal immigrants). And I know that there are better things for me to worry about. It upsets me that they are stealing my time by dragging on this case. I don't really give a damn about one woman whom I've never met who has been incapacitated in a hospital in Florida since she suffered critical brain damage when her heart stopped back in the _early nineties_. I mean, I do, but there are so many people who die every day, often for purely preventable reasons. Let's irradicate AIDS. Let's get rid of hunger. These are fully within America's resources, but not if we spend our time worrying about one euthanasia case.

In fact, I don't think any of those members of Congress actually really care about Terri Schiavo. Her parents do, as does her husband, and by know probably so does Judge Greer, and that's why they continue to fight. But Congress is getting involved for other reasons. And that's why I'm writing about it: I have no desire to have Schiavo continue being kept alive or let to die, but I do want to talk about the conservatives' reasons for keeping her alive (both physically and metaphorically) and denounce them.

There are many people who hold a consistent and honorable (if ultimately wrong) "pro-life" position (I would rather not get into abortion issues here, although the discussions are related; if you'll let me, I'll save those thoughts for a later post). This position seems to go as follows: human life (understood as physical life of a human organism) is inherently valuable, and to destroy it is always wrong (and the State should interfere with attempts to do so). As such, consistent pro-life-ers oppose any form of the death penalty, violent war (except, possibly, to stop other killings, depending on how they weigh the relative responsibilities of the State to both avoid killing and to stop other killings), suicide, prenatal abortion, and euthanasia.

I don't share this position, but I respect those who do --- their values are similar to mine, in that we share a respect for humans, and many have made the completely understandable calculation that a policy that allows the State to end lives, even for ostensibly noble reasons (if, say, someone wants to die), is too risky, as it opens the door for the State to kill "undesirables" by arguing that they would want to, or that they're not sentient enough to matter. And I can't argue against such a position except via a nuanced discussion of basic values, in which I outline mine: in my understanding, life is not in itself inherently valuable; what's valuable is humans' ability to make choices about their lives, and to have individual and private control over their own lives. I have a very broad definition of who counts as a human, and I think it's very important that one doesn't enter lightly into decisions about creation or annihilation of life. The side of caution certainly lies with asking people who are alive to stay alive, and with avoiding creating new lives. But no one will argue for universal cautiousness, and I think we can trust individuals to make their own decisions, and rely on people like Judge Greer when the individual whose life is at stake cannot speak for herself. If Greer had consistently found that Schiavo would prefer to stay alive, I might suggest that I would have other preferences in a similar condition, but I wouldn't question the decision to let her live.

A consistent pro-life-er might side with Schiavo's parents against her husband in the present case, but as soon as one introduces all the other concerns that plague human lives, I hope that reasonable people won't put much energy into this battle. Of course, one should never have faith that members of Congress are particularly reasonable. And none of them are particularly consistently pro-life, either. Most notable (and oft-commented-upon) is the decision of many conservatives, including our president, to support the death penalty while denying individuals a right to die. Our former attorney general favored the regular torture and killing of generally non-white individuals who committed various crimes, and simultaneously crusaded against Oregon's Death With Dignity act, in which Oregon doctors may prescribe lethal doses of various drugs to terminally ill patients who choose to end their lives peacefully now, rather than painfully later.

Schiavo's case is different from most Oregonian right-to-die cases, and it's dangerous to stretch the analogy too far. Again, I want to reiterate that I support allowing her to starve to death (from what I can tell, especially for an incapacitated and relatively nerve-dead individual such as Schiavo, starving to death is a relatively peaceful way to go, and ketosis can even coincide with a euphoric state) because I trust Judge Greer's judgment. It's scares me to think that someone might kill a severely physically or mentally disabled because they think they would want to die. Our society must provide more resources to those individuals traditionally pathologized as "disabled", to assure that they lead full and active physical and intellectual lives. It wasn't until the last decade that the governor of Oregon formally apologized for the forced sterilization in the early 20th century of alter-abled members of his state. But it's not the worry of a resurgence of Social Darwinism that is driving most "pro-life" conservative law-makers, and larger right-to-die issues are very central.

Let me no longer beat around the bush. It seems very clear to me that the conservatives who want to keep Terri Schiavo alive are doing so as part of a program to increase, or at least maintain, government control over individuals' lives and deaths. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, and perhaps "program" is too strong a word --- many of our conservative legislators presumably lack a clear agenda for how to achieve greater government control, or even realize entirely consciously that that's what they're going for, but they do in fact want it. Of course, that's what being a social conservative is all about: restricting individuals' freedoms and reducing their control over their own lives.

And that's why Schiavo's case has received so much national attention, why so many debates revolve around her. She herself isn't all that important --- the majority leader's rhetoric may try to convince you that she is, but it's a lie --- she's important only to a few family members and lawyers and judges who are actually arguing her case in Florida state courts. But she stands for, and gives a name to, a larger debate over the government's role in life and death. Can the government legitimately restrict my ability to die, or to live? How about my ability to make medical decisions for an incapacitated loved one who trusts me? Does the government need to protect me from myself? And how much should these restrictions or lacks thereof be federally unified, and how much should be left to more local decision-making bodies? Most basically, what are my rights to my body?

These are debates worth having, and their worth having on the Senate floor. I certainly have many opinions about them, and you will probably be hearing more from me on the subject(s) in postings to come. I hope to hear from other bloggers, and, in fact, from politicians, many of whom are very smart and probably do hold reasoned, nuanced opinions. So let's talk about death, let's have a national dialogue (or even better a "polylogue" --- there are more than two opinions that need expressing), and let's pass congressional resolutions, laws, and even, if need be to protect human rights, constitutional amendments. But don't focus on Schiavo. Using her as a stand-in, as a euphemism, is cowardly, and denies her her humanity much more than does removing her feeding tube.

19 March 2005

Shall we?

A new blog is always an adventure, or at least a gamble, or maybe a new blog is just a question. A number of questions, not entirely unrelated: Will it be any good? Will the writer ever post anything? What will the posts be about? And what the hell does the title mean?

I hope the answers to the first two questions are yes and yes, respectively, and I'm pretty sure the third's answer includes words like "nuanced", "detailed", "gender", "liberal", and "politics". Perhaps any sentence that mentions all of those guarantees that I have incorrectly guessed the answer to the first question --- this certainly is not the first member of the blogosphere's progressive political contingent --- and if my second answer is wrong (I moonlight, or, rather, sunlight as a student at an elite west-coast university, so my blogging levels vary wildly), then The Orange Juice Files will be merely a collection of occasional musings.

Which brings me to that dreaded fourth question, that attempt at attaching a connection between signifier and signified. In fact, there is none beyond the observation, upon registering for Blogspot, that my usual internet handle loaned itself very well to a slightly whimsical and utterly irrelevant blog title. Read as much or as little into that complete-breakfast-balancing glass of calcium-enriched, lots-of-pulp beverage; perhaps if you drink all the liquid you will be able to divine your horoscope from the sludge at the bottom.