Euthanasia

First do no harm: People, as well as politics, are crucial when covering medical conscience fights

First do no harm: People, as well as politics, are crucial when covering medical conscience fights

It's one of the most famous phrases in the world of medical ethics: "primum non nocere." That's Latin, of course. It means, "First do no harm."

Ah, but who gets to make the ultimate decision about whether a particular medical procedure or strategy for care will do harm to a patient? Is that ethical/moral call up to the patient, the doctor, the doctor's boss, an insurance company or even lawyers representing the U.S. government?

Now flip that question around. What if doctors pledged something like this: "First, do good." Who gets to decide what is good? Clearly, there are legal, ethical and, yes, religious questions linked to these decisions and that has been the case for centuries.

So let's pull these ancient questions and values into our litigious age.

A patient requests an abortion, perhaps even in the second or third trimester. The doctor (or perhaps a nurse) is an orthodox Catholic, a Mormon, a traditional Muslim, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox Jew or someone else with a deep and consistent belief that it would be wrong, a mortal sin even, to take part in this procedure. Some questions linked to medical care for trans patients, especially children, would create a similar ethical/theological crisis. Doctors do not agree on what causes "harm." Many disagree on what is "good."

How do reporters cover stories linked to these debates? First, do no journalistic harm?

Hold that thought. Here is the top of a Washington Post feature -- from the national desk, not the religion team -- on this semi-new front in America's culture wars.

The Trump administration will create a new conscience and religious freedom division within the Health and Human Services Department to ease the way for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to opt out of providing services that violate their moral or religious beliefs.

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Good advocacy journalism -- The French daily Liberation on the right to die

Good advocacy journalism -- The French daily Liberation on the right to die

What the weak head with strongest bias rules, Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, (1711) line 203.

Regular readers of these columns will discern my disdain for advocacy journalism. It is part of my personal catalogue of the seven deadly sins. Let us tick them off according to Pope Gregory I’s list: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, wnvy and pride. Advocacy journalism is the reporter’s particular sin of pride. It takes humility to handle opposing voices with accuracy and respect.

But I do not want to dismiss this style out of hand for there are many examples of excellent opinion-centered news articles. A recent story on euthanasia from the French daily Libération is an example of how to do advocacy journalism well.

But first let us define our terms. In a recent GetReligion article, editor tmatt described the clash of ideologies between the classical school of Anglo-American reporting, and the older but now revived school of advocacy reporting.

When I say "old-school journalism," I am referring to what textbooks often call the "American model of the press," which stresses that journalists should strive to honor standards of accuracy, fairness and balance when covering the news. The key: When reporting on hot-button issues, journalists should strive to treat people on all sides of these debates with respect.
This classically liberal approach to news emerged, and evolved, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The goal was to produce news that was as independent as possible, thus exposing readers to genuine diversity. Citizens could then make up their own minds.

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Spot the religion ghosts: Who loves Charlie Gard the most, his parents or state officials?

Spot the religion ghosts: Who loves Charlie Gard the most, his parents or state officials?

Like millions of other people in the social-media universe, I have been following the tragic story of the infant Charlie Gard (see http://www.charliesfight.org) and the struggle between his British parents and various government and medical elites over his future.

What is there -- journalistically speaking -- to say about mainstream media coverage of this complex story?

The easiest, and certainly the least surprising, thing to say is that a sad story about a baby's fight for life is way more interesting to gatekeepers in major media when Citizen Donald Trump and Pope Francis enter the drama. #SURPRISE

So now we have some pretty in-depth coverage of the story of infant Charlie, his parents and their supporters around the world. Hold that thought.

If you have followed this story closely you know there are religious issues at the heart of this crisis. There are religion ghosts here. The big question: Who loves Charlie the most, his parents or the state? Who should get to make the final decisions about the long-shot efforts to save his life?

The parents are clearly motivated by religious beliefs and want to fight on, defending his right to life. The odds are long, but they have faith in both God and science.

Government leaders, backed by some (not all) medical experts, say they are defending the infant's quality of life and that the state has the ultimate right to end his pain and suffering.

One of the strongest points in a major New York Times story on this case is that it stresses that money is not the issue. The parents have a vast network of supporters -- now including Trump and the Vatican's pediatric hospital -- to help fund further, desperate treatments.

So what is the issue here? The big question appears to be when government experts can trump parental rights and, yes, religious liberty. Thus, I did find it disconcerting that readers did not learn the names of Charlie's parents -- Connie Yates and Chris Gard -- until 650 words or so into the Times story.

Still, the material that made it into this report is strong.

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Former Catholic priest does euthanasia (in numbing detail) recorded by the New York Times

Former Catholic priest does euthanasia (in numbing detail) recorded by the New York Times

It’s beginning to feel like fill-in-the-blanks journalism: A terminally ill person wishes to die on his own terms and so we are walked through his last hours in a happy celebration of the joys of euthanasia.

Some of us have mixed feelings about assisted suicide, especially if you’ve spent any time in a ward of very elderly people, many of whom have no idea of where they are. And, were they cognizant, they might vote themselves off the Earth pretty quickly.

Yes, this is personal. After spending some time at the bedside of my dying father a year ago and seeing how miserable so many of the elderly and sick truly are, I can understand wanting to end it. But there is always that slippery slope when it comes to science, law and doctrine.

Here we have a lyrical New York Times piece about a former Catholic priest arranging his own death. We start here: 

VICTORIA, British Columbia -- Two days before he was scheduled to die, John Shields roused in his hospice bed with an unusual idea. He wanted to organize an Irish wake for himself. It would be old-fashioned with music and booze, except for one notable detail -- he would be present.
The party should take up a big section of Swiss Chalet, a family-style chain restaurant on the road out of town. Mr. Shields wanted his last supper to be one he so often enjoyed on Friday nights when he was a young Catholic priest -- rotisserie chicken legs with gravy.
Then, his family would take him home and he would die there in the morning, preferably in the garden. It was his favorite spot, rocky and wild. Flowering native shrubs pressed in from all sides and a stone Buddha and birdbath peeked out from among the ferns and boulders. Before he got sick, Mr. Shields liked to sit in his old Adirondack chair and watch the bald eagles train their juveniles to soar overhead. He meditated there twice a day, among the towering Douglas firs.

Wait a minute: Chicken legs (not fish) on Fridays when he was a YOUNG priest? Maybe this is a sign of Catholic tensions to come.

Not surprisingly, the locale is in the Pacific Northwest in a part of Canada that the article  calls “ground zero for assisted suicide in the country.” 

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Gorsuch nomination rumble underscores need for religion writers to understand Constitutional law

Gorsuch nomination rumble underscores need for religion writers to understand Constitutional law

Religion reporters need to be knowledgeable on Constitutional law because U.S. federal courts continually handle newsworthy church-and-state dust ups. That is underscored by the partisan rumble over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch of the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (which will be the proverbial Sunday School picnic compared with the next Supreme Court vacancy.)   

The Left is aggrieved because Gorsuch wrote the circuit opinion favoring Hobby Lobby’s bid for a religious exemption from Obamacare’s mandatory birth-control coverage (the Supreme Court later agreed with him), and joined the court minority that backed similar claims from the Little Sisters of the Poor. A bit of the byplay:

Legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick typifies the critics, saying Gorsuch personifies an “alarming tendency” toward “systematically privileging the rights of religious believers” to “impose their views on others” as though their “faith must not be questioned, or even assessed.”  Evangelical attorney David French responds that in such conflicts a “human, natural, and constitutional right” properly takes priority over “a regulatory privilege.”

On Hobby Lobby, Planned Parenthood’s head protests that Gorsuch believes “bosses should be able to decide whether or not women should be able to get birth-control coverage.” A National Review editorial calls that a distortion because (1) the ruling affects only narrow cases that involve  the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and (2) in any case employers cannot prevent employees from obtaining coverage.

Gorsuch reminded senators of two cases where he supported the religious liberty of non-Christians.

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God is in the faith details? The messy, complicated lives of Norma 'Jane Roe' McCorvey

God is in the faith details? The messy, complicated lives of Norma 'Jane Roe' McCorvey

If you ever talked with Norma McCorvey, you know that there was one thing that she wanted journalists to do more than anything else: To tell her story, with all of its messy and complicated details.

She had more than her share of regrets. She had deep sorrows and, through the years, crossed an ocean of shame. As "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade she was a footnote in just about every textbook used in an American History class, at any level of education. Yet, from her point of view, she was famous because of a lie at the heart of her own life.

She knew that she could not make her lies go away. But she did want journalists to allow Americans to hear her tell the story of when she lied, why she lied and how she came to regret what legal activists built with the help of her most famous lie. Thus, she told her story over and over and over, while also trying to walk the walk of a conception to natural death Catholic pro-lifer.

The key point: For McCorvey, her adult life begins with lies and ends with attempts to live out the truth. For those on the cultural left, her public life began with truth and then sank into sad confusion and religious sentiment.

Now McCorvey has died, at age 69. That means that almost every newsroom in America will offer some version of her story -- one last time. How many of the scandalous details of her complicated life will make it into print? When looking at the mainstream obits, there is one key detail to examine: How seriously did each news organization take McCorvey's conversion to Roman Catholicism?

Let's start with the Associated Press, since that feature will appear in the vast majority of American newspapers. To its credit, the AP piece puts both halves of the McCorvey journey in the lede, where they belong.

DALLAS (AP) -- Norma McCorvey, whose legal challenge under the pseudonym “Jane Roe” led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that legalized abortion but who later became an outspoken opponent of the procedure, died Saturday. She was 69.

A few lines later there is this crucial summary of her life -- stated from McCorvey's own point of view, drawn from an autobiography.

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Gorsuch and the big scare-quote religion stuff? So far, little light shed on Supreme Court pick

Gorsuch and the big scare-quote religion stuff? So far, little light shed on Supreme Court pick

What reporters have missed about Judge Neil Gorsuch, the President’s nominee for the Supreme Court, is that the Episcopal parish he attends in downtown Boulder is headed by a female priest.

Think about that for a moment. If this man is the frightening conservative that some on the Left are already alleging him to be, there’s no way he’d be Episcopalian, much less at a woman-priested church. It will be interesting to see if the Episcopal hierarchy issues any kind of formal reaction to this nomination. Watch this space: The Episcopal News Service.

The Episcopal Church, for anyone who’s not been following religion trends in recent decades, has been careening to the theological and cultural left for years and its membership statistics show it. Thousands have left TEC and joined alternative Anglican churches.

Not so this judge. A church in bluest of blue Boulder is not going to be a conservative hideout and this article notes that Gorsuch’s parish is pretty liberal. The place is St. John's, Boulder and for you trivia experts out there, it's the same church that JonBenét Ramsey's family attended. A Google search shows there’s an Anglican church in Boulder that the Gorsuch family could be attending if they so desired.

So, the fact that the judge and his family has remained at St. John’s says something.

So far, the mainstream press has missed all that and concentrated on his court rulings on hot-button topics, the kinds of subjects often framed in scare quotes. For example, while his precise views on abortion remain a mystery, he has written extensively on euthanasia -- producing a book on the topic ("The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia").

What the New York Times ran with is typical:

While he has not written extensively on several issues of importance to many conservatives, including gun control and gay rights, Judge Gorsuch has taken strong stands in favor of religious freedom, earning him admiration from the right.

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Hey reporters: Is a more active Religious Left a sign of a growing Religious Left?

Hey reporters: Is a more active Religious Left a sign of a growing Religious Left?

Your GetReligionistas have long argued that the mainstream press doesn't pay enough attention to the Religious Left. In fact, I wish that the Associated Press stylebook team could help us all get consistent on the question of whether -- as with the term Religious Right -- it's "religious left" or "Religious Left." I vote for the second option.

Also, anyone who dug into the details of the famous "Nones on the Rise" materials from the Pew Forum realizes that religion-beat pros need to change our thinking about who is in the Religious Left, these days.

You see, it's not enough to focus on the declining numbers of people in liberal Christian and Jewish pews. That story is still important, and worthy of coverage, but it's old. Journalists really need to think of the new Religious Left as a growing coalition of atheists, agnostics, "Nones" and then doctrinally liberal Christians and Jews. When it comes to hot-button religious, cultural and moral issues this is the coalition that stands together. We will come back to that.

I bring this up because of some interesting passages in the main Religion News Service story about the Women's March in Washington, D.C. (Click here for Julia Duin's wrap-up of other angles linked to that important event.)

The first hint of what is coming is this:

Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, they rejected the notion that the conservative religious people successfully courted by Trump -- out in force on the National Mall for his inauguration Friday -- represent the only voice of religious America.

But here was the start of the main block of material on this topic:

Andy Miller said his Judaism brought him to Washington Saturday.

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Hey, New York Times! There's a long history of faith-based palliative care, don't'cha know.

Hey, New York Times! There's a long history of faith-based palliative care, don't'cha know.

The notion of caring for those at the end of life's journey is a relatively new one, dating back about 70 years to the work of Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician who began working with the terminally ill in 1948. In 1974, Florence Wald, a dean of Yale University's nursing school, teamed up with a chaplain and two physicians to start the Connecticut Hospice in Bradford, Conn.

Since then, at least 5,800 hospice programs have been organized in the United States, according to the most recent figures available (2013) from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. There's no doubt these programs span a spectrum from highly secular to highly spiritual. It's the latter that has caught the attention of The New York Times, where the notion that organizations serving the needs of those in their final days seems to be a rather new concept.

Some background: Until a few months ago, a triple-amputee named B.J. Miller ran the 30-year-old Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, California, where patients went to confront the end of life, receive palliative care and even, in one case, help plan a wedding for the family member of a hospice patient.

Thanks to the Times, we know these things take place in the city by the bay, and what interesting, innovative things they are! Read on:

... Miller also seemed to be on the cusp of modest celebrity. He’d started speaking about death and dying at medical schools and conferences around the country and will soon surface in Oprah’s living room, chatting about palliative care on her “Super Soul Sunday” TV show.
... Vicki Jackson, the chief of palliative care at Massachusetts General Hospital ... pointed to the talk Miller gave to close the TED conference in 2015. Miller described languishing in a windowless, antiseptic burn unit after his amputations. He heard there was a blizzard outside but couldn’t see it himself. Then a nurse smuggled him a snowball and allowed him to hold it. This was against hospital regulations, and this was Miller’s point: There are parts of ourselves that the conventional health care system isn’t equipped to heal or nourish, adding to our suffering. He described holding that snowball as “a stolen moment,” and said, “But I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding that in my hand, and the coldness dripping onto my burning skin, the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment, just being any part of this planet, in this universe, mattered more to me than whether I lived or died.” Miller’s talk has been watched more than five million times. And yet, Jackson told me: “If I said all that — ‘Oh, I could feel the coldness of the snowball ...’ — you’d be like: ‘Shut. Up. Shut up!’ But no one is going to question B.J.”

 

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