Wednesday, March 4, 2009

One of the Good Guys

Received an email today about a Memorial Service for one of my Law School Professors. He'd died in November; I hadn't known.

I am saddened by his loss. I took two classes from him and wrote a paper for him. But I'm not saddened because I knew him and he may have influenced me in some small way. I'm saddened because Jay Katz was one of the good guys.

I may have mentioned this story before, but this will always sum him up for me.

I was taking his class called "Family, Child, and the State" -- it dealt with the rather difficult legal issues of who makes the decisions when there are differences of opinion being parents, children, and government. (What to do when a parent refuses an operation for a child that the doctors believe is medically necessary? What if it is refused on religious grounds? What if the child shares the parent's faith and would rather die than undergo the procedure? What if the operation isn't medically necessary, but would correct a serious deformity?)

There's a student in the class -- she's Black. She's angry. She questions why we should trust the government with these decisions at all. She notes that, historically, the United States government does not have the greatest track record in acting in the best interests of Black Americans. Her voice raises, and she uses, as an example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in which U.S. Public Health Service researchers allowed Black men with syphillis to go untreated in order to observe the complete progress of the disease -- even after penicillin had been proven an effective treatment. Why should I trust a government, she asked, that had let these men die in the name of research?

And Professor Katz sat calmly and quietly while she said her piece, letting her voice her anger because that's the sort of person he was. And when she was finished he said, just as calmly, "I was one of the physicians that stopped the Tuskegee Experiment."

And while this was a fairly awesome demonstration of what can happen if you don't research the background of the dude you're arguing with, it stays with me because Professor Katz was the only person in the room -- and most likely the only person in the Law School -- who could, without question, claim the high moral ground here. The student was right to be angry; the Tuskegee researchers had acted reprehensibly -- but she was expressing her anger at a man who, at the time of the Tuskegee experiments, had stood up in front of Congress and said This Must Stop.

I'm sure Professor Katz taught me all sorts of things about Law, Medicine and Ethics. He taught me things about Family Law and the law pertaining to Reproductive Technologies (and I'm sure he would have had something interesting to say about Octo-Mom). But these things don't make me sad about his passing. What makes me sad is that we've lost someone who believed in moral absolutes -- that there's some shit you don't do simply because it is wrong, even if some good might be gained from it. And the world needs as many voices like that as we can get.

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