Prof. Stephen Hawking is a world-famous theoretical physicist. He was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at age 21, while he was a doctoral student at Cambridge. He was told he had two years to live. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair and could speak only through a speech synthesizer. Some of the many problems faced by Hawking and his caretakers are shown in the film “The Theory of Everything.”
Despite his increasingly severe disability, Hawking completed his Ph.D. Even more significant, he shepherded 10 candidates to their own Ph.D. degrees. These people went on to make outstanding contributions to science, as well as training other scientists. It is said that a pebble makes ripples that may go far. Hawking made – and is still making – some rather large ripples. On a personal level, Hawking married twice and fathered three children.
Hawking is now 72. That is, he has been “terminal” for 51 years. That’s a really long terminal. But how can the word possibly be used to describe a condition that has lasted for 51 years? What, if anything, does “terminal” mean?
● When I was a medical student, “terminal” meant in the actual process of dying. A patient’s chart might read, “Blood pressure falling, breathing irregular, appears terminal.” But gradually – and perhaps intentionally – the word “terminal” came to include a wider and wider group of medical conditions.
● Next, “terminal” came to mean “expected to die in six months.” In my career in medical oncology, I and my colleagues rarely gave so specific a prognosis. We had seen many patients who defied our predictions – in both directions. We had seen patients we expected to die in days, but who went on to recover completely. And we had seen patients who seemed to be doing well, but who died suddenly. These experiences taught us humility about our predictive abilities. But self-anointed “experts” often have little practical experience, and even less humility. These people meet the classical definition of “expert” – someone who is often wrong but never in doubt.
● Now, “terminal” has come to mean “expected to die sometime in the future.” But this includes everyone on Earth. The word is meaningless – but it sounds grim and threatening. A word that has no fixed meaning, yet is frightening, can be useful to would-be totalitarians. They can use it to implement policies that would evoke anger if people could see how meaningless the word really is – and how dangerous the proposed policies really are.
Is this an exaggeration? Consider this example: A letter to the Los Angeles Times describes a person who had been battling “terminal” cancer for “several years.” The letter writer has been seduced into using the word “terminal” to mean “incurable by current medical science.” But everyone will die sometime. By this incredibly elastic definition, we are all “terminal.” In an era of cost containment, this thought should cause us to yell stop! But will we?
Recall the words of candidate Obama, when he has asked by Pastor Rick Warren when life begins:
Rick Warren: At what point does a baby get human rights, in your opinion?
Barack Obama: I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is, you know, above my pay grade.
John McCain: At the moment of conception.
Obama cannot define when life begins, and he has equally vague – and equally worrisome – notions of when life ends, or should end. When President Obama was asked whether an elderly woman should get a cardiac pacemaker, he replied:
If we’ve got experts that are advising doctors across the board that it will save money. [Emphasis added.]
That is: (1) “Experts” tell doctors what they must do, and must not do. (2) These regulations apply across the board, rather than allowing a doctor to tailor treatment to an individual patient. And (3) the object is clear – to save money.
President Obama went on to clarify his position on treatment for the elderly or the disabled:
Maybe you’re better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller.
And then, predictably, even the pain pills will be restricted. Have a nice day – and a nice life. The exit is there on your left.
Imagine what the world would have been deprived of if Stephen Hawking’s health care had been terminated soon after the “terminal” diagnosis was made. True, we are not all brilliant scientists. But we are all human beings, deserving of utmost respect regardless of our physical or mental condition. If we cannot agree on so basic a moral principle, what does that say about us?
Hawking is an atheist. Perhaps this is a result of his early socialist leanings. Perhaps it is a result of his anger at his physical disability. Perhaps it is a result of his wanting to get along with many (by no means all) of his fellow theoretical physicists and cosmologists. But in any case, he ridicules belief in God.
Paradoxically, it is religious values that provide the strongest bulwark against treating human beings as disposable items. If human beings are not unique individuals, each created in God’s image, then what are they? They are economic units that can be discarded as soon as they are no longer economically productive.
Atheists are like pacifists – they depend on the efforts of those they look down upon. Pacifists sleep safe in their beds, but only because the soldiers they despise patrol in dangerous and lonely places, and because the police officers they disrespect patrol their own neighborhoods.
Similarly, atheists remain safe in their wheelchairs, but only because the Judeo-Christian values that have undergirded Western civilization inhibit officials from euthanizing them.
I say “have undergirded,” because these values are being eroded.
How else can we explain why assisted suicide and euthanasia are being applied more and more widely in Western Europe, and now in the United States?
How else can we explain why we twice elected as our president a man who openly expresses such anti-life views?
How else can we explain why we elected a man who wants to deny innocent babies, disabled adults, and the elderly the same rights we accord convicted murderers?
How else can we explain why we sat uncaringly, doing nothing, while brain-damaged Terri Schiavo was dehydrated and starved to death over 13 days? After all, we explained, it was done “according to law.” (What law? Not God’s. Not the Constitution.) After all, we claimed, “We were only following orders.” That’s what the Nazi war criminals claimed at their trial – before they were hanged.
Very few of us are Stephen Hawkings, who might be allowed to live despite our disabilities, because of the outstanding contributions we could make. All the rest of us ordinary folks can only hope to be allowed the time to make our ordinary contributions, and to spend time with our ordinary families and friends. Will this hope be fulfilled? Only if we remain vigilant. Only if we reject meaningless words like “terminal.” Otherwise, the “useless eaters” who are a “drain on the Fatherland” won’t be around for long.
Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD was a chief architect of ObamaCare. He is a professor of “bioethics” with a joint appointment in the school of business. (Does that give us a clue about the basis of his “ethics”?) Emanuel tells us that we should die at age 75. Baroness Warnock, advisor to the British government and “moral philosopher,” declares that patients with dementia and the elderly in mental decline have a “duty to die,” and that officials should be “licensed to put them down.” If we see these warning signs, but we still fail to act, we will deserve the cold, money-oriented, merciless, inhuman fate that will befall us.
We are not all Stephen Hawkings. But we are all human beings. We must insist on being treated accordingly.
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