• Unintended consequences
    February 19,2013

    Unintended consequences

    Once again our Legislature is pushing the boundaries of taboos of life and death. Most cultures have them, and there is a great diversity. There are cultures that approve infanticide and require wives to be burned to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres. In others, elders are expected to expose themselves to the elements to die when they are no longer useful.

    In the culture we have known in European America, we have had various contradictory taboos around death. We have forbidden infanticide, intentional murder and the killing of our elderly, while we have permitted killing of “enemies,” especially native people, and lynching of African-Americans.

    Only gradually have we disapproved of domestic violence, lynching, and the whipping of slaves, children and the indigent.

    There is great power in our taboos, because they drive our expectations and behavior. Now, we are on the brink of legally “permitting” physicians to kill severely ill patients. There are plenty who defend this as a freedom of choice for those dying — and, in our culture, that is a compelling argument. But we should look at how this will change the taboos of death in potentially undesirable ways.

    When we broke through the taboos around extramarital sexual activity, it was hailed as sexual freedom. Today, children as young as 12 and 13 are under pressure to “have sex,” and a high proportion will do so well before they are 18, even though we know that brain development and emotional development lag significantly behind puberty. What was permitted has now become the expected norm.

    This will also occur if and when we legalize the “choice” of physician-assisted suicide. I can attest to countless elderly and terminally ill persons who focus intently on the “trouble” they are causing their loved ones and caregivers. This “guilt” will quickly become “duty” to die. The taboo will shift from rejection of elder euthanasia to an expectation that we all will choose it.

    Is this the culture we wish to leave for our children?

    Rev. Ralph W. Howe


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