Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Right to Die

In a quiet corner of American life, the question of the right to die has continued to foment although the best-known advocate of suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has died and the best-known organization, the Hemlock Society, dissipated in 2003.

The movement itself is stronger than ever.   The Final Exit Network, for example, openly advocates the “human right to death with dignity” and is one of many such groups worldwide.

As former FEN medical director Dr. Lawrence Egbert wrote in a recent essay, “I solidly approve of the idea that competent individuals suffering unbearably should have the right to end their lives when their quality of life is personally unacceptable and their future holds only hopelessness and misery. Such a right should include when to die, where, and how.”

In April, Egbert, 83, was found “innocent of conspiring to assist in a suicide” in an Arizona case.  Other investigations are taking place in such diverse cities as Athens, Ohio; Lincoln,
Nebraska; Mount Vernon, Washington; Middlebury, Connecticut; Washington,
D.C.; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Apparently, the prosecutors know nothing of human history.  Assisted suicide has a long history.  Ancient Greek stoics made a virtue of suicide.  Doctors in the Greek and Roman societies supported ending lives rather than prolonging agony.  In Athens, anyone wanting to die could get poison from city officials.

In ancient countries, children who were born ill or deformed were often exposed to the elements.  Such efforts reduced chances that such defects would be passed along to future generations, although, sadly, some children died because of their gender or other non-medical reason.

Eskimos, for example, have long been noted for putting their infirm, elderly relatives on ice floes and sending them off to die.  Their reasoning was simple: in such harsh conditions, few could survive unless everyone contributes.  Those who could not would have to leave for the safety of the family.

On the other side, since the 1300s, Western nations have objected to suicide.  “Laws in some parts of Europe dictated that a suicide's corpse be dragged through the streets or nailed to a barrel and left to drift downriver. The medieval ethos was distinctly uncongenial to any kind of self-murder," according to Ian Dowbiggin, in his 2003 book, A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America.

Opposition has thawed in the intervening years.  In 1980, the Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul 11, endorsed the right of patients to refuse “extraordinary means to sustain life.”  In 1988, the Unitarian Universalist Association approved a resolution supporting the right to die.

Within two years, public opinion polls show that about of Americans support physician-assisted death, up from around 30 percent six decades earlier.

Australia briefly legalized euthanasia in 1995.  The Netherlands and Switzerland eliminated criminal penalties for it soon after.  Colombia has allowed euthanasia since 1997.   Luxemburg followed suit in 2008.

This country, too, has seen a shift in attitudes. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the issue over to the states.  By then, Oregon had already approved the "Death With Dignity" law.  In 2007 alone, an estimated 46 people took advantage of the law there.  A year later, Washington state voters agreed to allow “patients with six or fewer months to live to self-administer lethal doses of medication,” according to published accounts.  A month after that, Montana approved the right of residents to request physician-aided suicides.

The change has come about because of improved medical treatment that has allowed people to live far longer and to die from chronic illnesses that debilitate and debase their existence.  As a result, many people now have living wills, which request that no extreme steps be taken to extend life.  In many states, patients can refuse medical treatment.  For example, baseball slugger Harmon Killebrew recently announced he had stopped fighting his cancer and was moving into care of hospice.  No one stepped up to protest his decision, or similar ones made by less-prominent individuals worldwide.

The moral questions entwined with euthanasia continue to bedevil onlookers, but increasing consensus seems to be moving toward an idea that once was commonplace thousands of years ago. 

Author Bill Lazarus writes about contemporary topics.  He can be reached via his website at
www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are also available on Amazon.com and Kindle.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Get an Education

Two very different subjects came together this weekend: The United Nations and problems in American education expressed by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

The two subjects seem unrelated, but you will soon see how they merge.

The United Nations showed up in an e-mail forwarded to me by a parent of one of my international students.  In it, the author recommended that the U.S. stop foreign aid because various countries that we give foreign aid to voted against us in the United Nations.

For example, according to e-mail, “Kuwait votes against the United States 67 percent of the time.  Qatar votes against the United States 67 percent of the time.  Morocco votes against the United States 70 percent of the time” and so on.

The writer was outraged because “Egypt, for example, after voting 79 percent of the time against the United States, still receives $2 billion annually in U.S. foreign aid. Jordan votes 71 percent against the United States and receives $192,814,000 annually in U.S. foreign aid…”

What hogwash.  

First, the United Nations was created after World War II to prevent future world wars.  As such, it’s worked.  A similar body, called the League of Nations, was created after World War I.  It didn’t work because conservative isolationists in Congress voted against our membership.  World War II followed.  We have not had a world war since, although plenty of opportunities existed for them.

When Soviet Premier Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the lectern in the United Nations in 1960, he was not pressing a button to send nuclear bombs raining down on the U.S.

Second, the U.N. was set up to give equal rights to its members – with a Security Council containing five permanent members like the U.S. and a rotating list of 10 smaller countries.  They are supposed to agree and disagree with each other within the confines of the United Nations instead of taking their disputes into the battlefield.

Moreover, the countries voting against us have every right to disagree.  They are not “bought and paid for.”  Giving them money does not accord us the right to dictate their decisions or policies.  Thinking like that is why we are mired in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We cannot dictate to other countries, any more than we want them dictating policies to us.

Moreover, foreign aid is necessary, as was noted in a 2004 report written for Congress by Curt Tarnoff, specialist in Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs and National Defense, and by Larry Nowels, specialist in Foreign Affairs and National Defense.  

“Foreign assistance is a fundamental component of the international affairs budget and is viewed by many as an essential instrument of U.S. foreign policy,” they wrote.

We also don’t overspend. “The 0.2 percent of U.S. gross national product represented by foreign aid obligations the past two years, however, is among the smallest amounts in the last half-century.  The United States is the largest international economic aid donor in dollar terms, but is the smallest contributor among the major donor governments when calculated as a percent of gross national income,” the Bush administration officials noted.

Here are just a few of the goals of our foreign aid they identified: “supporting peace in the Middle East through assistance to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians; fostering democratization and stability for countries in crisis, such as Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Liberia; facilitating democratization and free market economies in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union; suppressing international narcotics production and trafficking through assistance to Colombia and other Andean drug-producing countries; and alleviating famine and mitigating refugee situations in places throughout the world.”

Hard to argue with any of that.

What else does the United Nations do?  For starters, the world body works on health issues.  Smallpox, once a dread disease, was eradicated by the United Nations.  It also deals with refugees, hunger, abuse of children and so much more.  At the same time, UN agencies are focusing on global warming, pollution, and water shortages, issues that must be dealt with on a worldwide basis.

No, it’s not perfect.  No single body containing at last count 192 members, all with ethnic and historical differences, is going to function smoothly.  It is, however, far better than nothing.

Which brings us to education.  The fuzzy thinking in the e-mail reflects the decline in American education, something that Secretary Duncan has commented on.  Students today don’t know how to think, to probe an issue, to analyze.  They can simply take tests.  They spout facts, but don’t understand what they are talking about.  They don’t know history.  

Like the e-mail writer.

United States cannot endure without an educated population.  This country’s founders knew that.  Too bad not enough people know that anymore and focus instead of extraneous targets.

Bill Lazarus is a writer and historian who expresses his opinions in blogs.  His books can be found on Amazon.com, Kindle and his website, williamplazarus.com.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Re-Thinking Evolution

I really missed a real teaching opportunity in my ninth-grade class several years ago.  It’s bothered me ever since.  The students were debating the Theory of Evolution, a controversial topic well worth discussing in any school.  The student responsible for speaking on behalf of evolution failed to show up that day, so I took the pro side.

While I was speaking, a boy in class, Cory, held up a sign that said “I believe in God.”  That was his way of rejecting the theory.

That’s where I went wrong.  Instead of using that sign to initiate a lesson, I reprimanded him.  I realized later how I should have handled it:  I should have asked him a couple of questions.

“Did God create man?”

Of course, he would have answered yes.

“Did God create man in His own image?”  Cory would have said yes again.  After all, that’s what the Bible reports.

“In that case, are you created in God’s image?” 

Again, Cory must answer yes.  He would have no choice.

Then, I should have asked Derrick, who is an African-American, and Kim, who is Asian-American, to stand.  Then, I should have asked Cory if they, too, were created in God’s image.  

Once again, he would have had no choice but to answer yes.

Then, finally, I could ask him a question he could not answer:  “Why don’t they look like you?”

In fact, no one could answer that question for thousands of years until the Theory of Evolution provided the correct one.  English naturalist Charles Darwin is credited with introducing the theory in the mid-1860s, but, actually, that’s not completely right.  More than 2,000 years ago, Greek philosophers suggested that man evolved.  So did Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ famed grandfather.  

What Darwin did was published a book that finally explained the process allowing evolution to take place.  He called it Natural Selection.  

Derrick has black skin because people with darker skin in Africa could endure the sun better and so survived longer to have offspring, who inherited that coloring.  Eventually, people with lighter skin there died out.   Kim has a different shape to her eyes because a mutation added fat around her eyes, creating the oval design.  It reduced glare and subsequent eye damage, so people with that trait lived longer and had more offspring.  Eventually, all Asian people inherited that change.

At a distance, the process seems obvious.  Natural selection is why now-extinct humans once shrank in size to endure on a small Southeast Asia island and why sheep in northern climes are getting smaller now.  It is why snakes still have vestigial leg bones under their skin, as do whales.  Snakes once had legs; whales were once land animals.  However, a snake born without legs actually surpassed its legged relatives and passed on its genes.  The whales that returned to the ocean have survived; the land versions have not.
Scientists have subsequently learned that mutations play a role, too.  Sometimes, a mutation is so valuable that it allows the animal to easily out-reproduce its relatives.  The mutation is dominant and wins.  That’s all.
Regardless of the method, all creatures evolve constantly.  If they find an ideal design that can’t be improved, such as a snake or crocodile, they remain the same.  If they fail to hit upon a design that allows them to thrive as the environment changes, they die out.  Extinctions are happening every day: some are natural.  Sadly, some are caused by humans.  What we are seeing around us then is not the final creation, but rather simply one moment in time on an endless reel of life.

That means humans evolve, too, which would have been clearly evident to Cory and everyone else in my classroom if I had handled the discussion properly.

There are a couple of reasons why people like Cory refuse to accept evolution.  One is the word “theory” that is attached to it.  In everyday life, that means a guess.  To scientists, however, it refers to something proven in laboratories and field studies.  A guess to them is a postulation.  Theories are always tested.  Anything in science always is.  The Theory of Evolution can never be proven 100 percent.  There are too many variables.  That’s true for the Theory of Relativity, too.  However, to scientists, there’s no question of the accuracy of such theories.  They have proven out unerringly through the years.

The other reason why Cory rejects evolution is his belief in God.  To him, God created heaven and earth, and they cannot have changed.   There is also an answer to that.  If God created the world and mankind, why could he have created evolution as His tool to make sure everything functioned properly?

Cory then could hold up all the signs he wants while still opening his mind to scientifically proven truths.  Otherwise, it becomes a stop sign.  That’s the first step to extinction.

Bill Lazarus began teaching when, at age 4, he taught his 2-year-old brother to read.  He is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and an historian.  He can be reached by www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com and Kindle.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The End is Nearer Than You Think

Those Republicans candidates fighting over the 2012 presidential nomination are nothing more than ants on a small anthill, and the ants will be here after the politicians – and the rest of us – are gone. 

The preachers and evangelists shrilly announcing their beliefs, burning Korans or other performing other mischief are as important as crickets sawing their hind legs in the forest.  Those insects, too, will be around a lot longer than a single sermon.

The end is near, and not just because Jesus is returning.  He isn’t.  No Gabriel will blow a trumpet.  He is not needed anyway.  It’s already sounded.

This week, scientists announced that the oceans are in crisis.  The news came out of a ‘State of the Oceans’ workshop co-hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  The program was supposedly the first “to consider the cumulative impact of all pressures on the oceans.”
The findings blare louder than anything an angel can produce on a trumpet: the seas are deteriorating at a faster rate than ever imagined, leaving most creatures on them on the brink of extinction. 

When they go, we go.

In truth, the findings are not new.  Scientists examining the data have been warning anyone who would listen for years about the coming disaster. 

We should have known it anyway.  There’s a basic truth about life on Earth.  When a type of animal dwindles down to a single species, the odds for survival are too great.  At one time, about 40,000 years ago, there were other humans – Neanderthal, Hobbits and whatever the Siberian humanoid is called.  Now, there is just one, which we arrogantly named Homo Sapien Sapien.  That’s “wise, wise man.” 

Actually, we’re pretty dumb.  We refuse to focus on what is important, such as sustaining life on this planet, to argue about nuances in philosophy or who should win an election.  If there’s no planet, who cares?

The Bush Administration even demanded that scientists bowdlerize a report on Global Warning, as if that would make the problem go away.  We can argue all we want about whether the situation is man-made or natural.  Who cares?  It’s real, and unless we take drastic steps to counter it – or, at least, mitigate the problem – then it will only get worse.

Humans, however, don’t have much of a track record when required to reduce creature comforts.  Look at Greece, where people are rioting because of austerity measures necessary to tame the economy.  In Vancouver, thousands caused immense damage simply because the hockey team there lost in the finals.  As if it mattered who won or lost.

We’ll all find out soon enough how nonsensical much of our nattering is when the fish start dying, when the plankton disappears, when the oceans turn into dead zones – becoming gigantic versions of much of the Gulf of Mexico, which has huge dead zones.

I am reminded of a scene from Inherit the Wind, the great play and movie about the Scopes trial in Daytona, Tennessee in 1925.  In the scene, Clarence Darrow, played by Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, asks William Jennings Bryan, played by Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady, what happened when the Earth stood still as the Bible describes.  Tracy points out that if such an event actually happened, mountains would have toppled, seas would have dried up and the Earth would have been destroyed.

Tracy then concluded by asking how the Bible “missed that little tidbit.”

No worries now.  While candidates caterwaul and preachers pontificate, the Earth will be destroyed.

No one will miss it this time.

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who writes on current topics.  You can find his books on Amazon.com, Kindle and on his website, www.williamplazarus.com.