Death in Connecticut
Dr. William A. Petit Jr. lost his wife and two daughters in the most horrific way imaginable. After an invasion of the family’s home in Cheshire, Conn., Petit was clubbed repeatedly with a baseball bat; his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, was raped and strangled; and his children, Hayley and Michaela, were left to die after the family’s attackers set fire to their house and fled. Last week a jury voted to impose the death penalty on Steven J. Hayes, one of two men who took part in the invasion. The decision came a year after Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, citing the Petit murders, vetoed a bill that would have outlawed the death penalty in her state.
Grief seems to be the only acceptable response to such a terrible chain of events. In the face of Dr. Petit’s overwhelming sorrow, even the most ardent opponent of the death penalty is tempted to remain mute. Yet when arguing about the death penalty, these are the cases one must face. Whether the killer is Steven Hayes or Tariq Aziz, death is presented as the only just punishment. But what message is sent when the government’s method of justice mirrors the murderer’s own? In this country, the campaign to abolish the death penalty will never succeed if exceptions are made because of the gruesome nature of particular crimes. Time and again, efforts to outlaw the procedure have run aground when the public imagination seizes on a single evil act. But is this the proper way to govern a society? A system of law should not be swayed by worst-possible scenarios.
During a prime time interview on NBC, former President George W. Bush startled Matt Lauer. Mr. Bush recounted that after his mother Barbara miscarried, she showed her teenage son the child in a jar. “Here’s the fetus,” Mr. Bush recalled her saying. While the more squeamish might recoil at that story, Mr. Bush said that the episode affected him profoundly and helped him understand the sanctity of life inside the womb. “There’s no question that it affected me,” he said.
The anecdote points to a perennial question for those committed to end abortion. How graphic can you get? Rare is the adult who has not seen a photo of an aborted fetus as part of a pro-life mailing or on a placard during a pro-life rally. But is it an effective strategy? Some argue, the more reality, the better: those who favor abortion should see whose life they would permit ending. (Similar arguments are made by some death-penalty opponents: executions should be televised to show citizens what is being done in their name.) Sonograms and high-resolution images of fetuses also can change minds. Such technology swayed Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, an abortion provider who later produced the anti-abortion movie “Silent Scream.” On the other hand, some argue that graphic images like aborted fetuses simply disgust the viewer who may not have made up her (or his) mind about abortion. Revulsion over strong tactics may harden into opposition to the pro-life movement that adopts these strategies. Parents may also want to shield children from such images.
One can question the wisdom of a mother, even one grieving the terrible loss of a child, showing her teenage son a fetus in a jar. But as President Bush has demonstrated, reality does have the capacity to move hearts.
Malaria in India
Rates of mortality from malaria in India have been seriously underestimated, according to new studies by international researchers. A recent issue of The Lancet reports that because most deaths in India occur at home, far from hospitals, the precise cause is seldom medically certified. Deaths from malaria can thus go unidentified. Complicat-ing the situation is the fact that a main symptom, high fever, is also common with diseases like dengue and typhoid. The new studies conclude that malaria causes over 200,000 annual deaths in India—an astonishing 13 times more than the World Health Organization’s estimates. Under-reporting may also be a factor in statistics about malaria deaths in other densely populated countries, like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Field workers interviewed families in mostly rural areas of India, asking them to describe how their relative died. Then, in a so-called verbal autopsy, two doctors reviewed each description. The field reports were sent to teams of trained physicians who reviewed each again. W.H.O., while welcoming new efforts to establish a more accurate count of malaria deaths, expressed concern over verbal autopsies because similar symptoms can occur in different diseases. Evaluating deaths accurately is important, researchers say, because different diseases call for different control strategies.
A disease that can be eliminated, malaria remains a scourge for many of the world’s poorest people and should be addressed through greater international attention and funding. Efforts like those of the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have reduced deaths in some African countries. Similar outreach is now needed in India and similarly afflicted countries.