Death Is That Man Taking Names: Intersections of American Medicine, Law, and Culture

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University of California Press, 2002 M11 12 - 232 pages
The American culture of death changed radically in the 1970s. For terminal illnesses, hidden decisions by physicians were rejected in favor of rational self-control by patients asserting their "right to die"—initially by refusing medical treatment and more recently by physician-assisted suicide. This new claim rested on two seemingly irrefutable propositions: first, that death can be a positive good for individuals whose suffering has become intolerable; and second, that death is an inevitable and therefore morally neutral biological event. Death Is That Man Taking Names suggests, however, that a contrary attitude persists in our culture—that death is inherently evil, not just in practical but also in moral terms. The new ethos of rational self-control cannot refute but can only unsuccessfully try to suppress this contrary attitude. The inevitable failure of this suppressive effort provokes ambivalence and clouds rational judgment in many people's minds and paradoxically leads to inflictions of terrible suffering on terminally ill people.

Judicial reforms in the 1970s of abortion and capital punishment were driven by similarly high valuations of rationality and public decision-making—rejecting physician control over abortion in favor of individual self-control by pregnant women and subjecting unsupervised jury decisions for capital punishment to supposed rationally guided supervision by judges. These reforms also attempt to suppress persistently ambivalent attitudes toward death, and are therefore prone to inflicting unjustified suffering on pregnant women and death-sentenced prisoners.

In this profound and subtle account of psychological and social forces underlying American cultural attitudes toward death, Robert A. Burt maintains that unacknowledged ambivalence is likely to undermine the beneficent goals of post-1970s reforms and harm the very people these changes were intended to help.

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Good Death
Hidden Death
Death at War
Judges and Death
Doctors and Death
Choosing Death
The Death Penalty
All the Days of My Life

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Page 52 - Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
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Page 8 - ... the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother's hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad?
Page 44 - It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Page 8 - It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psycho-analytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.

About the author (2002)

Robert A. Burt is Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Constitution in Conflict (1992), Two Jewish Justices: Outcasts in the Promised Land (California, 1981), and Taking Care of Strangers: The Rule of Law in Doctor-Patient Relations (1979).

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