Wednesday, 7 March 2007

The 'miracle baby' and execution ethics


The 'miracle baby' and execution ethics

A "miracle baby" in Miami and a report by the governor's commission studying lethal injections provides stark evidence of our society's failure to understand the sanctity of human life. In both cases—one at the dawn of life and the other at the tragic end of life—biblical standards of morality gives the best guidance to our confused culture, if only we would heed them.

The miracle baby was released from Baptist Children's Hospital in Miami Feb. 21 after she was born Oct. 24—one day shy of 22 weeks of gestation—weighing less than 10 ounces and measuring 9 1/2 inches. Amillia Sonja Taylor is believed to be the only baby to survive birth with less than 23 weeks of gestation.

Florida Baptist physician Don Buckley told Baptist Press, "It's back to the drawing board for lawmakers who would base the right to life upon the age of viability of a fetal human. Such a strategy could always lead to further revision as medical science progresses." Buckley is a member of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola.

"Instead, it's time to see human life as a continuous thread beginning at conception and entitled to protection at all stages," said Buckley, a fellow of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Research Institute.

To read more about this remarkable development, see "Tiny Miami baby grabs hearts," starting on page one this week.

At the other end of life, the Governor's Commission on Administration of Lethal Injection released its final report March 1. The commission was established by former Gov. Jeb Bush last December to investigate the execution of Angel Diaz, whose death came 34 minutes after the administration of lethal drugs and appeared to cause him pain. The execution prompted outcries from death penalty opponents. Gov. Bush put a moratorium on the use of capital punishment while the commission studied the matter.

The commission was not empowered to question the ethics of the death penalty itself, but rather to "review the method in which the lethal injection protocols are administered by the Department of Corrections and to make findings and recommendations as to how administration of the procedures and protocols can be revised," as stipulated in the governor's executive order creating the commission. The report found that established lethal injections protocols were not properly followed in the case of Angel Diaz, but it was impossible to determine whether he was in pain as a result.

Gov. Crist said little about what his administration will do with the report, other than that the suggestions would be assessed by the Department of Corrections. He also asked Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough to review the procedures of the federal government and 36 other states using lethal injections.

The commission's report noted the "profound dilemma" presented by the use of medical professionals in the administration of capital punishment because all medical organizations' codes of ethics prohibit the involvement of medical personnel in executions and from providing technical advice for such.

Th three physician commissioners issued their own statement and concluded, "We know of no other occasion where the State employs the services of individuals operating outside of the ethical boundaries of their profession. This is not a desirable situation. It is also our conclusion that because of the above noted points, the inherent risks, and therefore the potential unreliability of lethal injection cannot be fully mitigated."

It seems the physicians stopped just short of calling for a permanent moratorium on the use of lethal injections as a means of capital punishment, but any fair reading of their conclusion would suggest they think that would be best.

Both the case of the "miracle baby" and Angel Diaz raise important ethical questions our society must face.

Does little Amillia's survival push back the definition of viability and force public policy makers to reconsider its implications for legal abortion? The biblically ethical answer to this question is, not really. This baby was no more human and worthy of legal protection because she survived her premature birth than is any other unborn child. As Dr. Buckley told Baptist Press, quoting Dr. Seuss, "A person's a person, no matter how small."

But the miracle baby does confront our culture with the reality that had her mother chosen to do so, she could have been aborted with the protection of the law and little Amillia would not be alive today.

And, what about Angel Diaz? Does his potentially painful death at the hands of the state call into question the ethics of capital punishment, or at least the use of lethal injections as a means of execution since it may involve medical professionals whose codes of ethics prevents their participation?

The facts of Diaz's murder conviction are potentially troubling. He was convicted by an 8-4 jury vote, seemingly on the basis of a girlfriend's claim that he was involved in the murder of a topless club manager in 1979, although there were no eyewitnesses. However, Diaz had previously been convicted of murder in Puerto Rico, but escaped. He had been sentenced to life in prison.

The ethical quandary of the involvement of medical professionals in execution is a serious one. The physician commissioners' concerns about the involvement of medical professionals in execution should be heard, and more careful attention should be paid to this matter.

I believe the sanctity of human life requires government to protect defenseless children like little Amillia, meaning that abortion should not be permitted; but the sanctity of human life also requires government to execute those who have committed murder. My Jan. 23, 2003, editorial, "Sanctity of human life and the death penalty," outlines why I believe such, so I will not repeat the reasons here.

Both in the case of Amillia and Diaz the use of the ancient Hippocratic Oath—which, of course, is not biblical but mirrors biblical ethics—would go far in resolving these ethical questions.

In the 4th century B.C. code physicians promise to not harm their patients, specifically noting, "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy" (From The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, by Ludwig Edelstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1943, as published on PBS's NOVA Web site:

Clearly, the Hippocratic Oath speaks to both cases. Unfortunately, medical schools today no longer employ the Hippocratic Oath. Therefore, medicine has "advanced" so that physicians who take the lives of unborn children are still welcome within the profession. And, while capital punishment should be available to the state for the most heinous offenses, the death penalty must be administered in an ethically sound manner. After all, even murderers are image-bearers of God.

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