Critical Reading—Donor Execution

Critical Reading: Inmate Organ Harvest

Today, I’ll ask you to carefully examine a written argument for claims that can be disputed for accuracy, sufficiency, and relevance; for inferences that are unfair, unreasonable, illogical, or irrelevant; and for judgments that not well grounded, flimsily supported, or flat-out batshit weird.

I won’t ask you to do so without first doing so myself. I’ll do my best to critique the claims, inferences, and judgments of the GOOD video “Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates” in a way I hope will be instructive.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will first say I think the idea of letting condemned prisoners donate their organs is sublime. At the same time, capital punishment itself is an abomination on our supposed civilization. But if we can’t eliminate executions as I would wish, then executing convicts by removing their organs under anesthesia for the life-saving benefit of others is a perfect poem, simultaneously regrettable and dear.

The question is, since I admire the conclusions it draws, am I inclined to overvalue the video’s reasoning? As a human, of course I am. As a lecturer in argument, I’d like to think I can be objective. You be the judge.

Model of Critical Reading

Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death Row Inmates.
The title includes several claims.

  • Let’s. The word means “Let us,” or “Permit us,” or “What do you say we . . . ?” It indicates a proposal argument is being made. The author will recommend a course of action for a named benefit. Classic proposals contain the language should, or must, or ought to, or, in this case, let’s.
  • Harvest. The word itself is an analogy claim. It says that pulling living tissue from a human body is equivalent to plucking peppers from the pepper plant we planted and cultivated to produce peppers. As pure analogy it fails miserably of course; nobody planted this convict or nurtured it in hopes that it would bear fruitful kidneys and lungs. There are people who pluck the beneficial parts of organisms they find but haven’t grown, but they’re not farmers. They’re foragers, or scavengers. So maybe to be accurate the video should be titled “Let’s Scavenge the Organs of Death Row Inmates.”
  • Death Row Inmates. This narrows the proposal considerably. Harvesting organs is a good idea; now let’s narrow the recommendation from everyone who dies to the 47 convicts put to death in the United States last year. Focusing on this group is both useful and problematic for the writer. Many viewers may think death row inmates have relinquished any rights they had to bequeath or keep their organs; at the same time, how much trouble should we be going through to get fewer than 50 hearts a year? (Not to mention, how many of those hearts will be worth the trouble?)

An unfortunate side effect of hanging or poisoning the man is that his organs go sour before they can be transplanted.

  • How cleverly this bland statement shifts our attention from the death of the inmate (surely the most unfortunate side effect of all) to the unfortunate loss of his organs.
  • It also contains the strong but entirely unspoken claim that these organs would be used for transplants if only they had not be spoiled by the messy execution process. Were 100% of last year’s executed prisoners eager to be organ donors?
  • Probably legitimately, but very cavalierly, the writer claims the inmate is always male.

Death row inmates have repeatedly asked to donate their organs, but their requests are always denied.

  • This claim will be true if as few as two inmates have ever asked to donate their organs.
  • Perhaps, to make the claim more sufficient, one of those two has asked repeatedly.
  • A judge bangs down a gavel to indicate that a court has denied the donation request, but no claim to that effect is explicitly made. We are urged to blame judges for their shortsightedness, but given no evidence that we should.

A simple reason is that execution generally ruins organs before they can be harvested.

  • This sounds like a pure repetition of the first claim about organs made “sour,” but the accompanying graphic indicates electrocution, not hanging or poisoning, is ruining them.
  • If the ruined organs are the “simple reason” to deny transplants, how are judges to blame?
  • It would be pointless of them to permit a convict to donate useless organs.
  • What exactly did the convicts ask? How did they propose to donate organs that would be spoiled by their executions?

By the time you cut someone down from the gallows or pronounce the injection lethal, the heart and lungs will have thumped and puffed for the last time.

  • While this claim is technically true, it doesn’t convince me that it must be true.
  • Maybe we wait too long to cut someone down from the gallows.
  • Maybe the injection is lethal long before it ruins the heart and lungs.
  • Furthermore, the claim does not mention the other organs. Could the kidneys, eyes and livers of the executed be fruitfully harvested?

So far the organs of all criminals executed in the United States have stayed with their original owners.

  • This is pure rhetoric.
  • The fact it states is not the point at all.
  • The lovely “So far” is an appeal to change the way things are.
  • The equally lovely “their original owners” marginalizes the surgical and ethical aspects of donation and makes the transaction comfortably commercial, like buying a used car from “the original owner.”

Consider the loss. Someone died waiting for that killer’s heart.

  • This is clever but patently absurd.
  • Someone died waiting for a heart certainly. But nobody had a reason to expect this heart.
  • Why the writer chooses this moment to identify the would-be donor as a “killer” is unclear.
  • The claim would be more effective if he had said: “waiting for this willing donor’s heart.”

The inmate could have allowed a dozen people to live in exchange for a body he wouldn’t be around to enjoy anyway.

  • Oddly, “the inmate could have allowed” shifts the blame from the courts or the method of execution to the inmate, who here is portrayed as selfishly condemning twelve people to hang onto a body he can’t use.
  • It seems entirely unclear that everyone deprived of an organ necessarily dies.

The math says we should encourage death row organ donation.

  • “The math,” apparently, is “1 is less than 12.”
  • How that says we should encourage death row organ donation is beyond me.
  • And when did we shift to the need to “encourage” donation? Earlier we were told inmates were eager to donate.
  • So, if anything, we should be encouraging executioners to permit death row organ donation.

By using the Mayan protocol . . . removal of the organs would itself be the method of execution.

  • This bizarre claim seems to be an attempt to legitimize yanking the beating heart out of a living person by appealing to an ancient cultural tradition.
  • It succeeds if you think of the Mayans as reasonable and deeply respectful nurturers of human dignity.
  • It fails if you think of the Mayans as bloodthirsty practitioners of human sacrifice on helpless victims.

Removal of the heart, lungs, and kidneys—under anesthesia, of course—would kill every time without an instant of pain.

  • A major shift in the argument occurs here, without notice.
  • Removal would kill.
  • Donation has become the method of execution, replacing all others.
  • Now, we no longer require the inmate to “ask repeatedly” to donate his organs. That choice has been made.
  • In return, we offer the assurance that death will be painless, something we don’t promise with hanging or electrocution.
  • The author knows he’s bargaining here, with inmates, with viewers, but he doesn’t say so. The claim is entirely unspoken.

If this creeps you out, remember that the federal government and 38 states currently approve capital punishment.

  • This is the Modest Proposal claim: “I am not responsible for this horrible reality; I’m only trying to make the best of it.”
  • Jonathan Swift used it satirically when he proposed: “Orphans will always be with us, useless and a drain on public resources; perhaps we should eat them.”
  • What’s creepy is executing people, the author says; my part is the cool part.

Maybe we should consider turning “scheduled death” into renewed life.

  • Well, it would still be scheduled death, wouldn’t it?
  • I mean, that’s what makes it so efficient.
  • You can schedule it.
  • No, that’s not creepy.
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