The Sanctity of Life Must Be Opposed
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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An unnamed 16-year old in the Dominican Republic has died from leukaemia complications. The “complications” were as a result of a “dilemma”: the girl was pregnant and chemotherapy, which she needed, would kill the foetus. Under Article 37 of the Constitution, it states “the right to life is inviolable from the moment of conception and until death”. This is “interpreted quite straightforwardly in courts” and “as a strict mandate against abortion”. Her situation came to light because she had to wait some twenty-days while the issue was fought over. It’s uncertain whether the delay itself killed her, but hardly any one, I think, can dispute it certainly made things worse.
The case of an anorexic woman also received frequent media coverage. As Jacob Williamson summarises it, in his series of posts on the case: “a woman has suffered from anorexia to such an extent that the only way she stands any chance of surviving is to be force fed in hospital for a year. She does not consent to this option, but if it does not go ahead then she will certainly die. The judge ruled that she is to be force fed.” Her own reasons and autonomy are being disregarded. The ethics of this case are complicated, but the automatic assumption that she should be force-fed to continue living is our main focus.
Tony Nicklinson, after being denied the right to kill himself (with assistance), has also recently died. Six days after losing the case, and after refusing food, he went rapidly downhill after contracting pneumonia. Nicklinson’s fight was for the assurance that there would be no prosecution for anyone who helped him die – given his locked-in state. Unlike many cases dealing with euthanasia, Mr Nicklinson was “not terminal” – a term that is still debated – but he did feel his life was not worth living. As he said after the verdict: “I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery."
Both of these cases indicate and emerge from the idea that life is sacred. This is the property where a phenomenon must be protected, revered and so on, at all costs. Sanctity emerges from a connection with some transcendent realm, but in terms of the broad, nebulous term of the ‘sanctity-of-life’, it is almost entirely theistic. Indeed, "life" is not all life - from bacteria to Bono - but the category of human life. Catholic theology tends to have the heaviest focus. As Aquinas terms it, sanctity contains two properties: firmness and cleanliness. By ‘cleanliness’ he meant that it is not part of the ‘profane’ world, of mortals and muck. We remove shoes before entering sacred temples, cleanse ourselves with special rituals, and so on [cleanliness and godliness and all that]. By ‘firmness’, he meant that this property could/should not be removed. It was a crime against god to do so. Thus, sanctity is, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia: “a quality of an object that is withdrawn from the profane and consecrated to God”.
Human life then, if considered sacred, is to be revered, treated with the utmost respect, never impeded, always promoted and so on. This is not entirely - though it is mostly - a bad concept. The main problems are that it is too excessive and targets the wrong aspect of human existence.
Of Quality and Quantity
What matters to our existence is, I would think, not the length of our life but its value. In other words, it is the quality of our life, not the quantity of it. Surely most would rather want a content, pain-free short life above one that is long but filled with constant boredom and pain? However, this isn’t about appealing to majority: The point isn’t to say that no one is allowed to continue living with boredom and pain. That is their choice. But this works both ways: if you do not wish to, you can opt for that, too.
Secondly, there is little wrong with defending and trying to extend life. This is a good thing on a basic, broad level. This is indeed one aspect of medicine. I say one because, as I indicated in the previous paragraph, one aspect of what matters to our lives concerns reducing and avoiding unnecessary suffering. Few doctors I know would say they would want to keep a brain-dead patient alive, while he simply drains resources that could be spent on those patients who are actually aware and alive and need those resources now; few would say we should never turn off respirators.
There are places to defend human life, but again: what we’re defending primarily is to extend the good life, not the suffering one. What I want to propose is the following: Life should be considered a neutral term in moral discussions - we are trying to work out what kind of life it is.
Promoting Good Life
Sanctity does little to help us in terms of promoting a good life. It is primarily aimed at promoting more life. Yet, if that life is filled with suffering or pain, why would anyone want more of it?
Indeed, as highlighted by the cases at the beginning, the defence of sanctity leads to unnecessary suffering and, indeed, (painful) dying. Why should human life be revered so excessively just because it’s human? Humans have different experiences of that life; to ignore the spectrum of human experience for the assertion of monochrome existence is to treat moral thinking in black-and-white terms. This leads to bad moral judgements, since the world is more complicated than binary ethical frameworks constituting of (absolute) right and wrong can allow for. If we're not engaging with reality properly, we can't do a good job of fixing what's wrong (or even identifying properly what is wrong).
What we should be saving, what we should be promoting, are good lives. Lives that the people themselves tell us they want. Even if it is the case that someone isn’t suffering any kind of biological disability, this still gives us no automatic reason to oppose her: if she wishes to end her healthy life, that remains her choice. We are not the ones experiencing her life; we have no right to drag her experience out just because we want to promote the nebulous but broad concept of human life. (This doesn't mean we just let people do what they want, even to their own lives and bodies, though.)
As soon as we stop respecting people’s interpretation of their own lives, we start arrogating mastery over their existence. A prime aspect of totalitarianism is omniscience and any entity which defends it should warrant our suspicion: thus people who claim to, for example, know Tony Nickilinson’s life was better off being extended, are worthy of being distrusted with the same vehemence as any defender of authoritarianism. This doesn’t mean we lock them up or treat them unjustly: it means we must keep our guard up against this metatron of superhuman abilities. These people are mistaken but are also dangerous in their thinking. One day, you or someone you love could be in such a position where life is not worth living anymore. And such voices of omniscience will assert that life is better lived longer, that to shorten it is immoral, because life just is sacred.
They are mistaken but its the ubiquity of this view that is its most dangerous aspect. More is needed, voices must speak and argue louder, so we can overturn the assumption, embedded so deeply in many places in society, that life is better because it is longer, as opposed to life is better because we can make it so.
UPDATE: Apparently the doctors are disputing the claim that girl from Dominican Republic died because of the law. The "anti-abortion laws had nothing to do with [the delay]. Rather, doctors from the Semma Hospital in Santo Domingo maintained that 'because they were waiting for her bone marrow test results to come back from a hospital in New Jersey to determine what kind of leukemia she had.'" [Source: ABC News]. However, the following paragraph disputes it. The point remains that such a law exists at all. Thanks to readers for pointing this out.
Image Credit: Oluf Olufsen Bagge/WikiCommons (source)
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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