Mar 4, 2008

Compassionate Homicide?

Recently the Robert Latimer case has gotten back in the news. Canadian readers will be well aware of the basic fact, but for others here is the bare-bones; On 24th Oct. of 1993 Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer killed his severely handicapped daughter Tracy, 12, by carbon-monoxide, running the exhaust of his truck into the cab. Tracy had cerebral palsy, was mentally retarded and paralyzed. She was also in a great deal of pain, although how severe and how constant it was seems to be in some dispute. Mr. Latimer was sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder. In Dec. 2007, a parole board denied him early release because he "had failed to show proper remorse." Indeed, he has always held that he did the right thing, acting out of compassion for Tracy's suffering. Shortly after this, a review board over-turned the decision and Mr. Latimer is now on day-release parole in Ottawa.

(If you want more back-ground to the story;
A good neutral summary from the CBC web-site
A review of the court evidence with a pro-life slant
The official Robert Latimer support site.)

This case raises a number of important ethical and legal issues. On the legal side, it brings into question the wisdom of the policy of "mandatory minimum" sentencing, the rights of the disabled, euthanasia and probably several more.

On the ethical side, this case raises once again the whole problem of beginning and end of life problems that seem to be at the crux of what is called bio-ethics. Many people support Mr. Latimer's decision; they cite what they call "quality of life" as a criterion. Tracy could never have expected anything close to a normal life, and probably would have endured a lot of physical pain before dying naturally at a relatively young age. They argue that the motive of this killing was "compassion" and it should have been treated differently.

But is it really ever possible to kill with compassion? As a monk friend of mine pointed out, when someone "puts down" a sick dog, they say "I just couldn't stand to see that poor dog suffer." According to Buddhist abhidhamma, an act of destruction of life must involve a mind of hate, and is incompatible with compassion. This is not to say that Mr. Latimer hated his daughter, I am sure he loved her in his own way, but the suffering he was trying to end in that pick-up truck was really his own.

And that is worth thinking about too. The suffering endured by parents of a child like Tracy is no small thing. Another issue raised here is how the broader society could and should take up more of the care of the severely disabled and not leave the whole burden on the unfortunate parents. But this said, it doesn't make what Latimer did in any way acceptable.

The idea of giving anyone, doctors, bureaucrats or parents included, the right to make life-and-death decisions for someone else based on perceived "quality of life" is a scary one. The slippery slope could go down a long way.

These right-to-life versus right-to-choice (although in this case, not Tracy's) bring out a fundamental ethical divide between those who have some kind of religious or spiritual perspective and those who base their ethical thinking on purely secular or humanist grounds. I know some will call me a crank, but I am more and more convince that so-called secular humanism is fundamentally inhuman. The basis of the materialist view is that we are just meat-machines and the implication is that when the machine malfunctions to the point where it no longer provides pleasure (the only possible good in the materialist view) then it can, indeed, ought to be destroyed. A spiritual perspective that recognizes, in some way or other, that this life here and now is not all there is, is capable of accepting a higher dimension and granting an intrinsic dignity and worth to human beings far beyond anything the materialist can imagine.

All this said, and my bias is clear, I am not upset that Mr. Latimer is more or less free. I am no fan of the penal system (maybe a post for another day) and I have no desire to see him punished. My concern is only for the precedent set, and I would think it appalling if the legal system and society at large started to view parental or medical termination of the mentally and physically disabled as somehow acceptable.