Creative Destruction

May 17, 2006

Sauce for the Handicapped, Sauce for the Unborn?

Filed under: Disability Issues,Feminist Issues,Reproductive Rights — Robert @ 7:52 pm

Piny of Feministe has a post up concerning the brutal murder of a New Zealand man. Keith McCormick, a disabled athlete, was relaxing at home when his able-bodied roommate Eric Smail came home drunk and apparently decided to murder him. Smail stabbed McCormick six times and then slit his throat, ending his life. The judge in the case showed Smail leniency, sentencing him to just seven to twelve years, basically because (broadly paraphrasing the logic of the decision) disabled people's lives are worth less, and caring for them is stressful.

The case itself is interesting and awful, but that's not what I'm posting about.

Here's Piny:

Because I–and Eric Neal Smail–can walk, our lives are by definition full and worthwhile. Because Keith McCormick used a wheelchair, his life was…less so. While the judge did not go so far as to say that his life was worthless, or make it out to be a contradiction in terms, he did argue that Keith McCormick had less to take away. That prejudice extended, I believe, even to Smail’s sentencing: those years spent in prison would be years taken off of a full life, and it’s unfair to expect Smail to trade them for years taken off of an inferior life.

and

This decision poses an enormous threat to people who need caregivers. It defines reliance on caregivers as an imposition on those who provide care–so much so that disabled people may expect violent reprisal for all that “stress.” All of that is invisible, because lives in which caregivers are mundane are invisible.

Doesn't this seem to resonate with the question of abortion? Fetuses are lives – they just aren't as important as other (adult) lives. Pro-choicers such as Ampersand will say that adult humans have cerebral cortexes, and can think – and that thus, our lives are full and worthwhile, while fetuses' aren't. Pro-choice feminists will say that fetuses require care temporarily – are parasitic on women's bodies – and this care is an imposition on their caregivers. It all seems very familiar.

The logic that the judge used in ameliorating the consequences of Smail's killing is orthogonal to the logic used by pro-choice advocates. The jump from "it's OK to kill a fetus" to "it's OK to kill a cripple" does not appear to be overwhelmingly large in magnitude. It seems like a fairly tricky endeavour to try to justify one as being obviously acceptable while the other remains a monstrous crime – particularly if you choose to defend abortion but condemn the killing of the disabled. After all, Keith McCormick was never going to get better – was never going to become a full human being in the Singerian ethical sense. But a fetus fairly quickly becomes an independent being with a full life ahead of him or her.

(BTW, Adam – we need an Abortion category, and probabily a Disability Issues category too.)

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31 Comments »

  1. I’m not persuaded of the premise of this question. I haven’t found any written decision in this case; I expect there isn’t one. Here’s the most authoritative statement I could find:

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/story.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10381612

    According to this article, Smail had been McCormick’s roommate and part-time caretaker since 2004. Smail had no “formal training” for this task, including training that might have permitted him to disassociate himself emotionally with the circumstances of his ward. To the contrary, Smail was “the kind of person who ‘took a lot on board,’” and evidence showed that the two were very close. At the time of his death McCormick could only move his head and neck, his health had been deteriorating in recent years, and Smail became aware that McCormick was in “considerable pain.”

    While intoxicated, Smail apparently reached the conclusion that he would do his friend a favor by killing him, and did so. The judge concluded that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that McCormick had entered into a suicide pact with Smail, and convicted Smail of murder. In New Zealand, murderers typically are sentenced to prison for a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life. The judge agreed to sentence the 48-yr-old Swail to prison for a minimum of seven years, with a maximum of 12, due to extenuating circumstances.

    What circumstances specifically? The article includes only two brief statements about the judge’s rationale. First, “The evidence is that you [Swail] thought you were doing an act of mercy in a way that minimised any awareness that he was about to die and was being killed.” Second, Smail had been under a high degree of “accumulated stress.”

    From all this, I can find no evidence that the judge concluded that McCormick’s life was somehow worth less than anyone else’s. Indeed, neither of the judge’s remarks are about McCormick at all; they are about Smail. The judge apparently concluded that Smail identified inappropriately with McCormick, and under the influence of stress and alcohol reached the unjustified conclusion that McCormick should not continue a life of pain and physical decay.

    In sum, the article is consistent with the idea that 1) Swail’s conduct was not justified by the facts in the record (and may have been illegal in any event; I don’t know New Zealand law), resulting in his murder conviction, and 2) Swail’s motives were arguably different than the motives of a typical murderer, warranting an atypical sentence.

    (Of course, the broader question about the relationship between fetuses and people needing care remains to be resolved, whether or not this case illustrates it.)

    Comment by nobody.really — May 18, 2006 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  2. Yeah; like I said, the case itself isn’t really what interests me. It’s the opinions expressed by the (fiercely, AFAIK) pro-choice Piny about the case. Maybe Piny’s got the case all wrong; I dunno.

    Comment by Robert — May 18, 2006 @ 4:49 am | Reply

  3. Doesn’t this seem to resonate with the question of animal rights? Animals are lives – they just aren’t as important as other (human) lives. Animal exploiters such as Robert will say that humans are sentient, and can think – and that thus, our lives are full and worthwhile, while animals aren’t…

    …The jump from “it’s OK to kill an animal” to “it’s OK to kill a cripple” does not appear to be overwhelmingly large in magnitude. It seems like a fairly tricky endeavour to try to justify one as being obviously acceptable while the other remains a monstrous crime – … After all, Keith McCormick was never going to get better – was never going to become a full human being in the Singerian ethical sense. But a Animal is an independent being with a full life ahead of it.

    Comment by Daran — May 18, 2006 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  4. The logic that the judge used in ameliorating the consequences of Smail’s killing is orthogonal to the logic used by pro-choice advocates.

    This is the English language police, you are surrounded, come out with your hands up.

    ‘Orthogonal to’ in this context means ‘independent of’ not ‘parallel with’.

    Comment by Daran — May 18, 2006 @ 8:16 am | Reply

  5. Daran, I believe that my usage is correct.

    Comment by Robert — May 18, 2006 @ 10:57 am | Reply

  6. Reading through the wikipedia entry on “orthogonal,” it seems that Daran is correct.

    Comment by Ampersand — May 18, 2006 @ 11:12 am | Reply

  7. I don’t see it, Amp. I was using “orthogonal” in the sense of being at a 90 degree angle – same structure, different direction.

    Comment by Robert — May 18, 2006 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  8. I agree somewhat. One problem is amalgamating all pre-born lives into one – I don’t usually see the feminists who like to talk about parasitic clumps of cells to make a distinction between a few days old embryo and a nearly full-developed fetus, instead preferring to focus on the parasite aspect, and the unfairness of the woman being forced to provide for the said parasite (socialism isn’t fun when you have to be the one whose liberty is being limited), which is a libertarian-lite argument, though saying this provokes outrage for some reason.

    But, the case of caretaker for a disabled person and a mother growing an embryo/fetus inside her is that the technology* in allowing the mother to transfer her duty to others does not reliably exist, whereas the transfer of caretaking duties in the case of disabled persons is relatively simple.

    So in this case, what makes this a murder is the fact that McCormick apparently did not try to pass his duties on to someone else or ask for help, but instead used his stress as an excuse to murder Smail.

    And I’m not touching the language police case. I use the “not native English speaker” diplomatic immunity.

    * Btw, if this would be a genuine possibility (artificial womb) the case for abortion would probably disappear.

    Comment by Tuomas — May 18, 2006 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

  9. But, the case of caretaker for a disabled person and a mother growing an embryo/fetus inside her is that

    should read:

    But, the case of caretaker for a disabled person and a mother growing an embryo/fetus inside her differs in that

    Comment by Tuomas — May 18, 2006 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  10. The argument for allowing abortion (mine, anyway) isn’t that the life of a fetus is worth less than the life of an adult—it’s that a fetus is not conscious in any meaningful sense, and that a fetus’s life therefore has no intrinsic value whatsoever. But a handicapped person is no different from you or me in that respect.

    Would you draw the same parallel (or right angle?) to the argument that it’s okay to kill animals because their lives are worth less?

    Comment by Brandon Berg — May 20, 2006 @ 2:23 am | Reply

  11. Brandon:
    The argument for allowing abortion … is that a fetus is not conscious in any meaningful sense…a fetus’s life therefore has no intrinsic value whatsoever.

    This implied proposed standard for whether a life has any intrinsic value appears to have substantial flaws. Is it actually your intention to make such a strong claim? (I hate to invest time in countering an argument that might not actually be being made.)

    …a handicapped person is no different from you or me in that respect.

    Unless they are mentally handicapped. If I take a blow to the head tonight that renders me mentally equivalent to a fetus, has my life become of zero value?

    Comment by Robert — May 20, 2006 @ 2:36 am | Reply

  12. Would you draw the same parallel (or right angle?) to the argument that it’s okay to kill animals because their lives are worth less?

    No. Animals aren’t people. The moral calculations involved are entirely different, and substantially (though not entirely) of an unrelated sort.

    Comment by Robert — May 20, 2006 @ 2:38 am | Reply

  13. The moral calculations involved are entirely different, and substantially (though not entirely) of an unrelated sort.

    What is the moral justification for using entirely different calculations?

    If I take a blow to the head tonight that renders me mentally equivalent to a fetus, has my life become of zero value?

    Pro-choicers don’t claim that fetuses have “zero value.” That way of putting it mistakenly implies that because I’m pro-choice I think my happily pregnant friends are wrong to value the growing lives inside them. That’s not the case at all.

    Regarding your example, your value depends on whatever instructions you’ve left, and also on whether or not your wife and family finds value in keeping Robert the Nonthinking Nonexperiencing Body alive.

    If you’re truly the same as a pre-28 week fetus – which is to say, without the physical capability for a “self” to exist, not even in the most rudimentary fashion – then I’d say you’re no longer entitled to a person’s legal rights, because you’re no longer a person. So if your wife decided to have your body killed, in that circumstance, I don’t think that should be a crime.

    Comment by Ampersand — May 20, 2006 @ 3:43 am | Reply

  14. What is the moral justification for using entirely different calculations?

    Because I want to.

    Pro-choicers don’t claim that fetuses have “zero value.”

    Well, I am currently talking with Brandon, a pro-choicer who apparently believes this. (Although I’m seeking clarification on the point.)

    Regarding your example, your value depends on whatever instructions you’ve left, and also on whether or not your wife and family finds value in keeping Robert the Nonthinking Nonexperiencing Body alive.

    Is this proposed as a generalizable formula for calculating a human’s value? Because if so, it is disturbing to me.

    All we have to do in order to reduce a person’s value to (or below) zero is to sufficiently alter the value that the people around him place on him or her. Everyone hates annoying Grandma? No more annoying Grandma. Incoming fetus raises problems? No more fetus. Who’s next?

    That seems to me an insufficient measure for valuing human beings.

    I could accept your valuation scheme with one amendment: that to every human’s value is added a constant, the value of which is unknown but always sufficient to render the final equation’s result a positive value.

    All human life has some value.

    Comment by Robert — May 20, 2006 @ 3:52 am | Reply

  15. What is the moral justification for using entirely different calculations?

    Because I want to.

    Then what’s your justification for imposing your moral stance – which you admit to be based upon whim – on anyone else?

    Pro-choicers don’t claim that fetuses have “zero value.”

    Well, I am currently talking with Brandon, a pro-choicer who apparently believes this. (Although I’m seeking clarification on the point.)

    He said no intrinsic value. Ampersand says that they have the value that their mothers give them. These two views are not inconsistent.

    Regarding your example, your value depends on whatever instructions you’ve left, and also on whether or not your wife and family finds value in keeping Robert the Nonthinking Nonexperiencing Body alive.

    Is this proposed as a generalizable formula for calculating a human’s value? Because if so, it is disturbing to me.

    All we have to do in order to reduce a person’s value to (or below) zero is to sufficiently alter the value that the people around him place on him or her. Everyone hates annoying Grandma? No more annoying Grandma. Incoming fetus raises problems? No more fetus. Who’s next?

    That seems to me an insufficient measure for valuing human beings.

    I notice that switch between “human (being)” and “person” as if they were interchangeable. Ampersand is not suggesting for a moment that a person might have zero value. His argument is that entities such as foetuses and brain-destroyed adult humans are not persons. I would go further and argue that a foetus is human (adjective) but not a human (noun). It’s human in the sense that your kidney is human.

    But it’s personhood, not humanness which is the issue here.

    All human life has some value.

    Do you oppose the death penalty?

    Comment by Daran — May 20, 2006 @ 7:08 am | Reply

  16. Oh Bollix, I screwed up the indenting. Can you fix please?

    Comment by Daran — May 20, 2006 @ 7:11 am | Reply

  17. Then what’s your justification for imposing your moral stance…

    I think it’s correct.

    As for the rest of the points, I notice that when I start arguing with Brandon, Amp steps in and starts arguing for him. When I argue with Ampersand, you step in and start arguing for Amp. I think that for purposes of keeping my own cognitive flow straight, I’m going to need to argue with each of you individually, rather than with your presentation of Amp’s view of Brandon’s point. 🙂

    Do you oppose the death penalty?

    No. Society can act in self-defense. But we don’t say “this criminal is of zero value, let’s kill him”, we say “despite his value as a human, it is necessary to kill him.”

    Comment by Robert — May 20, 2006 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  18. Then what’s your justification for imposing your moral stance…

    I think it’s correct.

    Do you believe that every moral stance you think is correct should be imposed on everyone else, or do you distinguish between your moral beliefs which you advocate enforcing on others, and those which you do not advocate enforcing on others? If you do make such a distinction, what is the criteria you use and how does that apply to the issue under discussion here?

    Pro-choicers don’t claim that fetuses have “zero value.”

    Well, I am currently talking with Brandon, a pro-choicer who apparently believes this. (Although I’m seeking clarification on the point.)

    Brandon didn’t say fetuses have “zero value.” He said that pre-consciousness, fetuses don’t have “intrinsic value.” That’s entirely compatable with what I wrote. (Gee, I feel like someone else said this recently… deja vu?)

    Regarding your example, your value depends on whatever instructions you’ve left, and also on whether or not your wife and family finds value in keeping Robert the Nonthinking Nonexperiencing Body alive.

    Is this proposed as a generalizable formula for calculating a human’s value?

    No, it’s not. Presumably, you missed the next paragraph of my post:

    If you’re truly the same as a pre-28 week fetus – which is to say, without the physical capability for a “self” to exist, not even in the most rudimentary fashion – then I’d say you’re no longer entitled to a person’s legal rights, because you’re no longer a person. So if your wife decided to have your body killed, in that circumstance, I don’t think that should be a crime.

    It’s perfectly clear that I was talking only about the limited set of humans “without the physical capability for a ‘self’ to exist, not even in the most rudimentary fashion.” That is to say, humans who are not people. It is only such a human who could correctly be described as “mentally equivalent to a fetus,” which it what you were asking about.

    The question becomes, do you seriously believe that it is impossible to make a moral distinction between how we treat a human with a cerebral cortex, and a person human whose cortex is entirely dead, useless or missing?

    If the cortex is irrelevant, then is there any reason to suppose that a headless corpse, kept alive on life support, doesn’t have as much right to life as you or I (or poor disliked Granny)?

    [Edited about 30 seconds after the original posting to correct using the word “person” instead of “human” in the penultimate paraphraph. –Amp]

    Comment by Ampersand — May 20, 2006 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  19. Do you believe that every moral stance you think is correct should be imposed on everyone else…

    Just the ones compatible with our system of governance.

    The question becomes, do you seriously believe that it is impossible to make a moral distinction between how we treat a human with a cerebral cortex, and a person human whose cortex is entirely dead, useless or missing?

    Impossible? No. Just wrong.

    If the cortex is irrelevant, then is there any reason to suppose that a headless corpse, kept alive on life support, doesn’t have as much right to life as you or I (or poor disliked Granny)?

    I suppose not. But you’re covering the electrical bill for the LSU.

    Comment by Robert — May 20, 2006 @ 6:07 pm | Reply

  20. If the cortex is irrelevant, then is there any reason to suppose that a headless corpse, kept alive on life support, doesn’t have as much right to life as you or I (or poor disliked Granny)?

    I don’t think that’s possible (for prolonged periods), for one, it wouldn’t meet the definition of alive.

    Comment by Tuomas — May 20, 2006 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

  21. Robert, at the point when you admit you can’t make a moral distinction between a person and a headless body on life support, I admit to being boggled.

    So are you saying that it would be mistaken of the headless body’s wife to consider her husband dead? And that taking it off life support would be murder, just like taking unpopular granny off life support would be murder?

    Suppose I’m mutilated in a car accident, and my arm is severed. At the hospital, the arm is kept alive on machines while they attempt to save my life (they’re hoping to reattach the arm). But I die. A doctor then shuts off the life-support on my arm, killing it. Should that doctor be charged with murder, in your view?

    Tuomas, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it was possible to keep a headless corpse alive on life support. What “definition of alive” are you saying it wouldn’t meet? (Keep in mind that the definition usually used is for deciding if a species is a form of life, not if an individual entity is alive.)

    Comment by Ampersand — May 20, 2006 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  22. Robert:
    As Ampersand pointed out, what I said was that fetuses have no intrinsic value. That is, a pregnant woman may value the fetus inside her because she looks forward to having a baby, but the fetus itself simply does not have the mental capacity to value its own life.

    You say that animals aren’t human. Fair enough. But it what relevant sense is a fetus human?

    Comment by Brandon Berg — May 20, 2006 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  23. Tuomas, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it was possible to keep a headless corpse alive on life support. What “definition of alive” are you saying it wouldn’t meet? (Keep in mind that the definition usually used is for deciding if a species is a form of life, not if an individual entity is alive.)

    As far as I can see, it would meet the full definition of life, including the ability to reproduce.

    Comment by Daran — May 20, 2006 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

  24. Amp, whatever ludicrous scenarios you want to invent in order to make me agree with, consider them agreed with. I believe what I believe.

    Brandon – thank you for the clarification. In response to your question, a fetus is human in the sense that it is a human being.

    You say that the fetus has no intrinsic value because it cannot value its own life. I say that a fetus (and any human life) has innate value which is not dependent upon its ability to perform any particular feat. That’s what “intrinsic” means to me.

    Comment by Robert — May 21, 2006 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  25. Robert:
    But you’re just begging the question. In what relevant sense is a fetus a human being? You mean just because it has human genes?

    I can’t think of any meaningful definition of “intrinsic value” other than the one I’m using. You sound like those environmentalists who say that trees have intrinsic value apart from their value to humans. Value to whom?

    Comment by Brandon Berg — May 21, 2006 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

  26. Amp, whatever ludicrous scenarios you want to invent in order to make me agree with, consider them agreed with. I believe what I believe.

    Yes, but do you understand that this is a public forum intended for debate?

    I don’t question that you believe what you believe. I question whether your beliefs make any sense and if they can be defended logically.

    Comment by Ampersand — May 21, 2006 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  27. Amp, my beliefs do not hold up to logical argumentation – under your worldview and the constraints that it imposes. They hold up just fine under my worldview and its constraints.

    Brandon: Value to God.

    Comment by Robert — May 21, 2006 @ 4:30 pm | Reply

  28. Tuomas, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it was possible to keep a headless corpse alive on life support. What “definition of alive” are you saying it wouldn’t meet?

    English Language Police, Foreign Second-Language Department speaking: If I say “my body” I mean this body of mine that I am currently using to type this. If I say “my corpse” I refer to that dead dude in my closet (kidding…).

    But then, I’m not very interested in debate over headless corpses.

    If for the sake of argument, you want to use that, then do so. But IMO more apt comparison would be (since we are talking about feti here, that word implies fully or partially formed cerebral cortex) would be “someone currently on life support whose CNS hasn’t yet been fully healed”. You and piny are arguing that the owner of the life support should have unconditional right to stop providing life support. Come to think of it, it IS an ableist argument.

    Again, I find it problematic that all feti are amalgamated in this discussion, as it provides opportunity for a lot of goal-post shifting.

    Comment by Tuomas — May 21, 2006 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

  29. Suppose I’m mutilated in a car accident, and my arm is severed. At the hospital, the arm is kept alive on machines while they attempt to save my life (they’re hoping to reattach the arm). But I die. A doctor then shuts off the life-support on my arm, killing it. Should that doctor be charged with murder, in your view?

    Where these examples you are providing fail is that they discuss parts of an entity (human, person), whereas a fetus is a whole entity (human, perhaps person).

    Or, to get back on the headless thing, if Doctors keep a seperate head alive, and the body, it doesn’t make for two humans.

    Comment by Tuomas — May 21, 2006 @ 6:48 pm | Reply

  30. Belated trackback:

    “…Then Bob over at Creative Destruction riffs off of Piny’s post and things go downhill from there. Cooking up a comparison between disabled people and fetuses…”

    Comment by Blue — May 25, 2006 @ 3:03 am | Reply

  31. Based on what I read in the article entitled “Sauce for the Handicapped, Sauce for the Unborn?” Smail was guilty killing his friend McCormick out of mercy. Quite understandably, Smail was troubled about this and had to be intoxicated in order to put his friend out of his misery. Obviously, the judge didn’t think Smail had McCormick’s approval to end his life and so the judge sentenced Smail to prison.

    What’s kind of interesting about this case is that Smail seemed to need to be drunk in order to perform his act of mercy killing. My sense is that Smail had previously decided that he would end McCormick’s life but needed the influence of alcohol to carry out his plan. In other words, I refuse to blame the mercy killing of McCormick on alcohol.

    DenMan7
    http://www.About-Alcoholics-Anonymous.com

    Comment by Denny Soinski — November 30, 2006 @ 1:29 am | Reply


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