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Converting Hearts to the Political Defense of Human Life: Is the Answer in the Brain?
Jacqueline H. Abernathy, Ph.D. 18 April 2019
Last week, I visited Austin to present my latest research on assisted suicide laws with a heavy heart. After 25 years of consistent bi-partisan opposition, my analysis had authoritatively affirmed what activists already instinctively knew: that assisted suicide had settled down party lines. Democrat lawmakers had aligned themselves in favor of euthanasia, making Hawaii in 2018 the third state to successfully pass assisted suicide into law. Analyzing data from Vermont in 2013, California in 2015 and now Hawaii, I found a strong statistically significant relationship between party affiliation and legislators' stance on assisted suicide.
As an opponent of human violence and likewise the political attempts to validate violence under the law, for the first time in over a decade of studying assisted suicide, I was distraught at my own findings. There have been over 225 attempts at legislation in U.S. states since 1994 with only a little over 1% of these bills surviving into law- in large part because the issue had insufficient public support and was largely unpredictable: Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to oppose the issue as they were to support it. A major shift in public opinion due to a massive propaganda campaign by the euthanasia lobby in 2014 had tipped the odds in favor of assisted suicide, yet the Democrat party platform remains silent on the issue while in 2012 Republicans adopted a plank in opposition. Only 3% of Republican legislators broke rank (vs. 20% of Democrats), yet the three cases suggest that all that is necessary for assisted suicide to prevail is a sufficiently large Democrat majority.
I reminded myself of the inherent value of the truth even when that truth is distressing. I conduct valid research not to vindicate my convictions about safeguarding human life from legal threats but to enable efforts to protect people from these threats. Rigorous research unimpeded by bias is critical for informing those who seek to change a reality that is unconscionable. Nonetheless, I struggled to find any redemptive information from my findings, data I could employ to stop the spread of legal euthanasia. In short, where do we go from here?
Then, just prior to my presentation, I witnessed research by a colleague that was absolutely paradigm-shifting and may well hold the answer: political neuroscience. I had never heard that term before but apparently there are political scientists that conduct fMRIs on research subjects to learn what parts of the human brain are affected by political images and if this can be connected to self-professed political ideology. The goal is to bring the study of political ideology to the most basal level by judging neurological reactions prior to the information being processed to form a political position. After all, people do not jump when startled by a stranger in a dark alley or say, "ouch!" when scalded by their coffee because they have thought about a situation and determined it to be scary or painful. These are reactions to stimuli. Subsequent decisions not to walk alone in the dark or to exercise caution when securing the lid to their morning latte are a natural consequence. And should this evolve into a political issue, a conviction to lobby for better lighting and guard patrols- perhaps to regulate beverage temperature limits or post warnings on cups, this would be another consequence. And suppose a person is not scared or scalded, that to would explain why they do not support the stances of those who deemed the alley too dangerous and the coffee too hot, not wanting to waste taxpayer dollars on what they deem to be unnecessary security measures and scoffing at another “nanny state” attempt to infringe on human freedom by forcing everyone to endure colder coffee, or posting asinine warnings that hot beverages are served hot. That position seems more than reasonable, doesn’t it? But so does the wanting to protect people from muggings or third-degree burns.
That is the premise of political neuroscience: assess instinctive reactions to political information before it is processed and converted into a political stance. Could differences of opinion between the left and right be a different way of thinking about the same issues- or could it be they perceive the issues differently from the very start?
Science suggests the latter. When shown images of political violence, namely war casualties of humans mutilated by bombs, the brains of self-proclaimed Republicans and self-proclaimed Democrats showed a very different reaction. Democrats had increased activity in the part of the brain associated with sympathy and compassion while Republicans had increased activity in the which is the part of the brain associated with fear. My mind immediately went to images of refugees and the commentary I've witnessed on both sides of the aisle. Ideologically-liberal folks pointed to these images to make a case for asylum while the ideologically-right use the same images to make a case for building a wall to stop what they insist to be a threat to national security. Add to this another study by a political neuroscientist in China that compared reactions toward images that showed a person pierced by a syringe. Chinese respondents' fMRIs found significantly more activity when the image showed another Chinese person being pierced than when it showed other races, although the pain was assuredly the same regardless of race. Decreased sensitivity toward the plight of outsiders is another explanation for present xenophobia- all thanks to political neuroscience.
This knowledge sparked a theory for why assisted suicide has gained sympathy in recent years and why the Democrats were particularly affected by this trend. The 2014 campaign by Compassion & Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society) showed only one side of the assisted suicide debate: and that side was the tragic terminal prognosis of Brittany Maynard: a young, well-to-do Caucasian woman in the prime of life who moved to a neighboring state to get the lethal dose that would ultimately kill her- making herself a martyr to the cause of legal euthanasia. Public support for assisted suicide increased 20 points that year, particularly among the ideological left, Caucasians, the well-off, and the young. For Democrats already more likely to respond to her story with sympathy, this was further compounded by the fact that they could identify with her more than if she had been older, poor, or Asian. It was an ideal public relations stunt for manipulating emotions.
But emotion-based convictions are often vacated with information that changes them-and consequently the conviction is spawned. What comes to mind are the bloody images of sheep after the hind skin is removed by mulesing, presented by animal rights groups to convince the ignorant to lobby against this practice. Actress Toni Collette took the bait and compelled by photos of perceived animal abuse, wrote to her Prime Minister to demand it be outlawed. But then she actually spoke with sheep farmers who explained that this practice was, for so many farmers, the only option to spare their flock the agony of a slow, torturous death due to infections caused from maggots literally eating the sheep alive. She immediately expressed her change of heart- because they changed her mind. Because she finally had the information to see that what she perceived as cruel to actually, in truth, be kind. Therefore, maybe the answer lies in informing those that support assisted suicide with the information they need to see that what they perceive as compassion is truly anything but.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in educating the well-intentioned and intentionally manipulated supporters of assisted suicide and redirecting their sympathy toward non-violent alternatives. Maybe we can help them see themselves in the person with a disability who is terrified of how legal euthanasia puts them at risk of medical neglect- even murder. Could it be that we need to show the public whom assisted suicide really hurts? Not the rich and young like Brittany Maynard who could afford to relocate in order to die by legal overdose, but the elderly and the poor who are coerced into killing themselves because they lack money for healthcare or adequate pain control. Perhaps we start there.
Political neuroscience relies on the power of images- and maybe this could also be key to converting euthanasia advocates. It has certainly been shown effective on other life issues by allowing people to see themselves as victims of violence. While images can be used to manipulate, let’s not forget that they can educate as well. This is perhaps why my 2016 study about graphic images of unborn children retrieved from family planning clinics showed how effective these images are in testifying to the humanity of the unborn and the savagery of abortion- ultimately changing the viewer’s mind by making the hidden victims visible to them. How can we make the victims of assisted suicide visible- and how can we educate those who simply do not see the danger of turning to violence as a legal solution?
Somehow we must inform those on the left with the knowledge to see why pushing a sick person off a ledge is not compassion at all- but rather cruelty. I have yet to conceive concrete strategies toward this end, but political neuroscience does supply some solid ground to begin looking for answers. We must act now, since my latest study suggests that euthanasia lobbyists have better prospects than ever before in states that are sufficiently blue.
While I remain disheartened that an entire party has chosen to champion legalizing self-destruction for those most in need of love and support, at least these insights offer a place to begin looking for ways to change hearts- and maybe that place is the human brain.
Jacqueline H. Abernathy, Ph.D., is a member of the Board of Directors for the Society of St. Sebastian. She is a bioethicist, public policy scholar, and an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Tarleton State University in the Master of Public Administration Program. She is also the Director of the Mortality Policy Project at TSU, a research initiative that studies laws that govern end-of-life decision-making.