Back in the 1700s lots of people who seem to have been rather thoughtful and well-intentioned were blind to the immorality of slavery. Think about a George Washington, or a Thomas Jefferson. I often wonder which of our practices that we overlook today will horrify future generations. Perhaps it will be the way we turn away millions of desperately poor people who wish to immigrate here. Maybe it will be our factory farms, or our lenient abortion laws. Perhaps the way we sedate millions of young boys so that they will be docile as cattle when in school. I honestly don’t know, indeed other than immigration I actually don’t have strong views on the list I just provided.
But one area where I do have strong views is pain. I find it hard to imagine a more unambiguous evil than pain. Perhaps there’s some silver lining—making us more stoic, more able to see the blessings of life. But when I’m in the dentist chair being operated on without painkillers, I have trouble seeing the silver lining. (I haven’t had that experience since I was a child—thank God we are getting a bit softer.)
There are two referenda on the Massachusetts ballot that will allow our residents to show they’ve risen a bit above the savagery of their Puritan ancestors; medical marijuana and the “right-to-die” without suffering excruciating pain. Here’s Marcia Angell:
The good cop was Dr. Timothy Quill, an internist in Rochester, New York, who in 1991 published in the New England Journal of Medicine a moving account of his decision to help a patient end her life.7 His patient, whom he called Diane, was a forty-five-year-old woman with leukemia. Without a bone marrow transplantation, which would entail much discomfort and was unlikely to be successful, she would die. Diane decided to refuse the transplantation and, with the support of her husband and adult son, asked Quill for a prescription to bring about death if and when she chose. He agreed, gave her the prescription, and she ultimately ended her life by taking it, after first asking her family to leave the house for an hour or so. Quill, who had been Diane’s physician for eight years, concluded his account by asking “why Diane, who gave so much to so many of us, had to be alone for the last hour of her life.”
At the time, I was executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and was aware that if we published Quill’s article, he might be at some legal risk. Like thirty-five other states, New York had banned assisted suicide. When I phoned Quill to ask whether, in light of the risk, he wanted to reconsider his request to publish the account of Diane’s death, he took a few days to think about it, then said he wanted to go ahead. Almost immediately after publication, the county district attorney brought him before a grand jury to indict him for manslaughter, but the grand jury refused.
The public generally has better judgment than our elected officials, which is why we have to rely on referenda (and jury nullification) on questions like medical marijuana and the right-to-die. Obama did indicate that he would allow individual states to set their own policy on medical marijuana, but he lied. Both parties are pro-pain, and against allowing people the freedom to decide for themselves when the pain is unbearable. It’s a scandal that makes the Bush administration’s torture policy (which was disgraceful) seem trivial by comparison. The pain we are talking about here can be an order of magnitude worse than “water-boarding.”
I saw a poll indicating that Oregon voters are likely to reject marijuana legalization. It seems there is very strong opposition among women voters, many of whom will presumably vote for Obama, and support his draconian drug laws. I’m sure they are generally well-meaning people, just as Thomas Jefferson was on the whole a well-intentioned individual. I’m not going to claim that locking up 100,000s of young black men for the “crime” of using drugs is on par with slavery, but I can’t imagine that future generations will look kindly on our policies toward pain and incarceration. The arrow of history is in the direction of utilitarianism.
I hope people will vote against pro-pain laws in all the various state referenda. As for myself, I care much more about these referenda than I do about which candidate becomes president.
About the post title. When I was young a 1977 book called “Chinese Shadows” had a big impact on my worldview. It was a beautifully written portrayal of how western travelers to China were blinded by visits to a carefully orchestrated series of “Potemkin villages.” Not only did it show the sad reality behind Chinese propaganda, but it also mercilessly exposed the bankruptcy of western leftist thought, circa 1977. At that time, all the exciting ideas were coming from the right. Today that seems like a different century, even a different millennium.
And it was.