Politics & Policy

Dead Presidents

Bioethics as wish fulfillment.

Many bioethicists are striving to create a grim future for America, one in which such outrages as infanticide are tolerated. But disfiguring the future isn’t enough for some of them. They’re doing the same thing to the past.

Pro-assisted-suicide bioethicists have time and again made false and often preposterous claims about the history of suicide and assisted suicide in Western (and especially Anglo-American) thought. Further evidence of this fiction can be found in the just published Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die, written by the influential University of Utah bioethicist Margaret Pabst Battin. (She was one of the signatories to the bioethicists’ March 2004 letter protesting President Bush’s appointment of new members to the Kass Commission.) In this book, Battin advances arguments in favor of legalizing and legitimating assisted suicide. One of them is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who uncannily both died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826, may have both deliberately killed themselves.

Calling Oliver Stone

Battin has a chapter in which she complains that while “practically every schoolchild” learns “the fact that Adams and Jefferson died the same day,” “asking why” is not encouraged. The answer cannot be that it was a coincidence, as the schoolchildren are taught:

[T]he fact that the death dates for both Adams and Jefferson fell on a historic anniversary–the fiftieth anniversary, not the forty-ninth or fifty-first–may seem to stretch beyond the point of sheer plausibility the claim that this was mere coincidence. But when appeals to coincidence are insufficient, we must look for explanations in common circumstance or common cause, or for causation from one case to the other.

Actually, it is extremely plausible that among the hundreds of great Americans in our history, there would be at least one coincidence involving two of them that, looked at in isolation, appears highly improbable. But Battin still drives on, and looks for that “causation.” She slanders the memory of the two physicians who attended to the two dying former presidents when she insincerely “asks” the following question: “Did physicians or family caregivers play a causal role in the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, deliberately allowing or helping them to die?” Pretty soon Battin has our fifth president, James Monroe–who also died on the Fourth, but of a different year–in on the suicidal fun, along with people to whom both Jefferson and Adams wrote letters in the early 1800s, and even Adams’s horse:

Furthermore, the issue of synchrony–whatever the individual explanations for their deaths–also leaves us with the further question of coordination. Did Adams and Jefferson think alike but act independently? Could they have had some joint understanding, reached perhaps in 1813–when each had been corresponding with a physician, Adams with Benjamin Rush about a horse’s deliberate stumble and Jefferson with Samuel Brown about lethal drugs–that they then recalled later on? Did their physicians or families think alike but act independently, or perhaps in concert? Could their families and caregivers have lied about the precise dates of their deaths, seeking to lend their demises a greater grandeur? Or was there a more orchestrated plan here, known only to these two men, or to their physicians and families, that accounts for the extraordinary “coincidence” or “grand design” of their deaths? Could it have been the mode, so to speak, to die on the Fourth if at all possible, by whatever means? After all, not just Adams and Jefferson, but three of the first five presidents of the young United States died on the 4th of July. In 1831, just five years after the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, James Monroe, the fifth president, did so as well (emphasis in original).

You half-expect her to start talking about the numerological significance of the number five, à la Farrakhan.

These are irresponsible conjectures based on the flimsiest of evidence. Battin cites letters written by an old, withering, and therefore cranky John Adams in which he wondered if it was worth it to go on living, a letter by John Randolph of Roanoke that seems to state “they have killed Mr. Jefferson” (how would he know? He spent the day that Adams and Jefferson died in Europe), and a letter written by Jefferson, years before his death, that seems to approve of the suicide of the French revolutionary, the Marquis de Condorcet. Battin’s implication that these statements constitute indirect evidence of Adams and Jefferson’s plot to kill themselves is absurd. If everyone who has ever defended a famous man’s suicide, or who has complained about life not being worth living as he got old, or who has had people spread rumors about how he died, has probably committed suicide, then “death by natural causes” is a category that should no longer appear on the mortuary charts.

Et Tu, Kant?

And we should not trust Battin’s quotations from Randolph either. People who follow bioethicists’ use of history have been here before with Margaret Battin. In The Least Worst Death: Essays in Bioethics on the End of Life, published in 1994, Battin alleged that another contemporary of Jefferson and Adams, the great Prussian metaphysician Immanuel Kant, approved of the suicide of the Roman Senator Cato. Indeed, in his Lectures on Ethics, Kant called Cato a “suicide who displayed great heroism.” But, later on the very same page of the Lectures, Kant states that “if Cato, under all the tortures that Caesar might have inflicted on him, had still adhered to his resolve with steadfast mind, that would have been noble; but not when he laid hands upon himself.” That Battin was so willing to twist Kant’s words to fit her pro-assisted-suicide agenda back in 1994 certainly gives us reason to suspect that she would do the same with Randolph’s (or Adams’s, or Jefferson’s) words today.

That Battin deceived her readers as to the obvious meaning of Kant’s Lectures is something that both Amherst College philosophy professor Jyl Gentzler and I have written about in peer-reviewed medical-ethics publications. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, Margaret Battin has never sought to correct her false statements. And now she has given us a book with a crazy theory about a plot by two, nay, three, American presidents all to kill themselves on the Fourth of July. The last decade has witnessed, perhaps, the most active writing ever of scholarly biographies about John Adams by honest, professional historians of the early United States. None of these historians exhibited any interest in Battin’s weird, culture-of-death-inspired, theory.

But this sort of thing is normal in the world of modern American bioethicists. In their forays into history, they quite regularly play the role of body snatchers for the cause of suicide. So, for example, philosopher John Simmons has explained that John Locke did not believe in inalienable rights, because that would have implied opposition to suicide–and Locke was too sensible to have believed that! (The theory has the small defect of making Locke’s support for the Glorious Revolution inexplicable. After all, King James II could not have been rightly overthrown in the Revolution had the English people already alienated all their rights to him.) Bioethicist John Hardwig pretends that Kant approved of suicide when done for altruistic reasons. Never mind that Kant condemned the classic example of altruistic suicide, that of Cato.

Proponents of suicide and assisted suicide want to claim as many great men of history for their side as they can. Even if they have to murder history to do it.

Bradford William Short is the research editor at the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) in New York. He also runs C-FAM’s political blog, TheThingIs.org. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of C-FAM. He has written extensively on the state of historiography in bioethics today for the peer-reviewed law journal Issues in Law & Medicine.

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