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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Life and death

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 01, 2015 12:28 pm

If you've made it here, welcome to the first post at the blog's new address If you haven't, I guess I'm talking to myself. Wouldn't be the first time. Just to break in the new platform, I thought I'd start with a look from a different angle at two old issues, both of them dealing with matters of life and death.

First is the issue of abortion, and the pope's new pronouncement about it:

Pope Francis, who has defined his short tenure by taking on the most controversial issues from gay marriage to climate change, waded for the first time into one of the thorniest topics of his papacy Tuesday when he said priests can forgive the "sin of abortion" for women who are sorry about it.

In a letter published by the Vatican, the pontiff — who has been striving to build a more inclusive church — said priests will have the power during a special "Holy Year of Mercy" that begins in December.

"I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it," the pope said.

The church considers abortion such a grave moral offense that anyone who obtains or aids in obtaining one is excommunicated.

If something was wrong yesterday, isn't it wrong today, and won't it be wrong tomorrow? How can a "grave moral sin" be forgiven or not depending on when it was committed? How does the pope think God, looking down on human affairs, thinks about that?

This reminds the of the tax amnesty plans some states, including Indiana, have instituted successfully, raking in millions in revenue that would have otherwise gone uncollected.  If not paying your taxes is a secular sin, how can it be forgiven in some periods but not in every other? I've written in favor of the practice on the grounds that is a natural part of fiscally responsible government, generally ignoring the main objection that it would encourage scofflaws to keep evading their civic duty. Not meaning to yank anybody's chain, but is the pope actually encouraging abortion? Oh, OK, I did mean to.

Anyway, lots of food for thought. I'm not sure if the pope's announcement will make me rethink tax amnesty or if my view of tax amnesty will end up coloring my opinion of the pope's action, but it has made me take a second look at two old issues.

And then there the issues of assisted suicide and the dignity/autonomy of the individual. For a fresh look at those, we go to Israel:

When a Palestinian man in Israeli custody came close to death this week, doctors challenged an Israeli law.

Palestinian prisoner Mohammad Allan was in critical condition after he had refused food for two months, protesting his detention since last November in Israeli custody. Suspected of ties to a militant group, he was held with no charges, no lawyer and no accusations to face in court.

Six weeks into his hunger strike, Israel's parliament passed a law permitting the force-feeding of prisoners in order to keep them alive. Allan might have become a test case for the law, but doctors made it clear they would not participate, calling it unethical medical treatment.

"It's like rape," says Yoel Donshin, a retired anesthesiologist and a member of Physicians for Human Rights. "You will ask a physician to rape a patient for treatment? This is unacceptable."

Donshin doesn't believe Israeli politicians who supported the law want to save the lives of prisoners.

I don't doubt that the intention of the force feeding is more about not creating a martyr than it is preventing a death. But isn't the fact that it does prevent a death a good thing? And given that one of the prisoner's primary motivations is to become a martyr, isn't it a legitimate response by Israel to try to prevent it? They aren't engaged in a polite ethical debate in the Middle East, after all. Israel faces an existential threat that forces it leaders to make decisions that don't even have to be considered in other countries.

And if someone is trying to commit suicide by not eating, isn't going along with that a form of assisted suicide? Last time I checked, that was against the law in most jurisdictions of the United States. Could it be said that not force feeding the would be-suicide is the same as handing a would-be suicide a loaded gun? Or is it different because one is passive and the other active? The end result is the same, and it seems to be the moral culpability is the same.

Trying to decide when it is acceptable to override someone's individual autonomy and when it is not is tricky stuff. I have the right to control my own life, including how to live it and when and under what conditions I want to end it. I don't have the right to make you an accomplice in its ending. You don't have the moral right (the legal right is still an open question) to help me end it. But do you have an obligation to actively try to prevent it? What about if you suspect I'm suffering from severe depression and will likely feel differently about the whole thing tomorrow, assuming I'm still alive so that it would make a difference?

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