Roundtable: Liver Donation, Viagra, 'In God We Trust'

Topics of Tuesday's roundtable include a death row inmate who hopes to donate his liver to his ailing sister; sex offenders who are able to obtain Viagra through Medicaid; and a revived debate over use of the phrase "In God We Trust." Guests: American Urban Radio Network talk show host Bev Smith, Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and Chicago State University professor Haki Madhubuti.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, death row inmate liver donations. We'll tell you about that. Sex offenders get Viagra and the debate over `In God We Trust,' among other things. Joining us from our New York bureau is Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Bev Smith joins us. She is host of "The Bev Smith Show" on American Urban Radio, and she is in Pittsburgh at WDUQ. And in our Chicago bureau, Haki Madhubuti, distinguished university professor at Chicago State University.

Folks, let's start with the Viagra debate, and this is one that was very interesting and it has made news over the course of the last few days. We should note now that the feds are saying that states can, in fact, deny Viagra to sex offenders on Medicaid. This is something that came out just a day or so ago, and a number of people up in arms that they would give the medicine for erectile dysfunction to convicted sex offenders and would be paying so via taxpayer dollars.

Michael Meyers, some people say, `Look, you pay your time, you ought to be able to entertain any fruit you'd like.' What do you think?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, it is a question of people having served their sentence and on parole. But, for me, this is an unseemly subject for NPR. It is at best a two-day tabloid story. Alan Hevesi, the New York state comptroller, got himself some limp publicity. So I'd rather talk about the wimps and the publicity hounds in the United States Senate who caved on the filibuster issue, but that's my view of it. This is just a limp publicity stunt by Alan Hevesi.

GORDON: No pun intended. Thank you, Michael. Bev.

Ms. BEV SMITH (Host, "The Bev Smith Show"): Michael, as usual, I disagree with you on this one. I think that this has really far-reaching implications for several reasons, but when I first read the story, I was called to say those famous words, `Say what?' That you give a sex offender a drug to make him sexual and then you release him to the public, duh. He's a sex offender. What do you think he's going to do? Does he need it? We're taking taxpayers' dollars to do this, and then you release him to the public?

The second part of this is that we have a large number of African-American women and Spanish-speaking women who have AIDS and HIV. They're getting it from men who are in prison, many of them, men who have sex with men, who come home and have sex with women, who commit a crime and go back and have sex with men. Doo-dah, doo-dah. This is unbelievable to me, and I'd like to look at the people closely who thought this one up. This is unbelievable.

Mr. MEYERS: And it's over. But it's over. There's been a clarification, and it's not happening anymore.

Ms. SMITH: I don't think that that's a clarification and I'd like to know how many other states are doing it.

GORDON: Right. I mean, it isn't over in the sense that if you continue to disagree with it and a state continues to do it, it is not over.

Haki, let me ask you...

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, I agree with you.

GORDON: ...I've heard actually people who've suggested that psychologically this may help the sex offender who now, if he had dysfunction, may see fit to stay with one partner. Do you buy any of that?

Professor HAKI MADHUBUTI (Chicago State University): You know, I kind of agree with both Michael and Bev on this. I think that Viagra should not be given to any Medicaid users, primarily because I see Viagra as a lifestyle drug who people need--meaning men--as a result of not staying in shape, watching their diets, exercising and so forth. I just don't think that we as taxpayers need to pay for men who have not taken care of themselves because of, you know, not being involved in the kind of lifestyle that would allow them to have sex into their later years. So I say no.

Ms. SMITH: But they're sex offenders. But they're sex offenders.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, no to any of them.

Ms. SMITH: And sex is in the brain--OK?--not necessarily in the dangling participle. And the thing that really blows my mind is: Who would think to do this...

Mr. MEYERS: How many times are you going to say that?

Ms. SMITH: ...to give--I can't...

Mr. MEYERS: I mean, how many times are you going to say, `They're sex offenders'?

Ms. SMITH: I want to find out.

Mr. MEYERS: It used to be that...

Ms. SMITH: They are sex offenders.

Mr. MEYERS: We used to believe that rape--yeah, rape was also an act of--it is also an act of violence and sometimes it has nothing to do with sex. But the question is that these people have served their sentence, they're on parole. The question is: Is this a medical deficiency? Is this a medical condition? And whether or not, if someone has served their sentence, are they--should they have the same rights as Medicaid recipients as all others? Again...

Ms. SMITH: Michael...

Mr. MEYERS: ...for me, this is not a big story.

Ms. SMITH: Well, Michael...

Mr. MEYERS: It's just not a big deal.

Ms. SMITH: I mean, they're sex offenders, OK? And any psychiatrist worth their salt...

Mr. MEYERS: Again we have that.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, again we have it. If you looked at the records of how many children are being abused and how many women are being abused and how many young men are being abused, you might change your attitude. And if...

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SMITH: You might change your attitude.

GORDON: All right. Let's move on to--since we seemingly are going in circles a bit there, let's go to another issue that is raising the ire for some, and that is in Indiana, there's a death row inmate who wants to donate his liver to save the life of an ailing sister. Blood tests concluded last week that he could, in fact, be a match. He's scheduled to die by lethal injection on tomorrow and has asked the governor of Indiana to delay his execution so he might be able to donate the liver to his 48-year-old sister. Haki, what's your thought here?

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, the problem is that the sister's doctor basically stated--this Joseph Tector basically stated that she would need a whole liver. I think he, Gregory Scott Johnson, wants to donate part of his liver. Now if he wants to donate the whole liver, I'm in favor of it, but also why not the kidney and the heart and the eyes if they're going to put this man to death? But a partial kidney transplant is not going to work for this woman.

Mr. MEYERS: No, his liver.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Liver. It's not going to work, according to the doctor. In terms of organ transplants, she needs a whole liver, and if you take the whole liver, he's going to die anyway. So why not take the rest of the organs also to help somebody else who may need them?

GORDON: But the question remains: Should, in fact, a stay of execution be granted by the governor of Indiana to allow this man to, in fact, donate?

Mr. MEYERS: Well, Mr. Johnson has made two requests of the state. One is that he be allowed to donate his liver or parts of his liver to a life of his ailing sister. The second request was that his sentence of death be commuted. Now I have to wonder which of those requests, if any, are going to be granted by the state. I suspect that neither will be granted. And so again, for me, the issue is the death penalty itself. You have a death penalty for his sister who has a certain blood type which he matches and might be able to help her, or if giving his liver is going to create his death or cause his death or, in the alternative, the state puts him to death. I'm against the death penalty, and if it's a chance for the woman to live, then she ought to have that chance. If there's a chance for this man to live, despite his being convicted of this serious crime, he ought to be able to live, because I do not believe the government should be in the business of killing people, period.

GORDON: That may be the case, but, Bev, some states are in the business of killing people, Indiana being one of them. So let me ask you, as far as you're concerned, in terms of the ability to save potentially his sister's life, would you like to see the governor give a stay of execution, albeit perhaps even temporary?

Ms. SMITH: Stay of execution, I vote yes, absolutely. We pay a great deal of taxpayers' money to keep people like him, and we've kept him, and I would feel that I'm getting my taxpayers' dollars. Plus, it would be taking someone who is evil--he stomped a woman to death and then set the house on fire. And this woman needs her life saved. So by any means necessary, I say yes. It's only a delay. And I'm with Haki. What about his eyes? What about corneas? Why not make use of this man and don't cut the deal for him to have a delay. Let's take as much as we possibly can to save other people. He took a life. Let's take as much...

Mr. MEYERS: You want to take his body parts against his will?

Ms. SMITH: I don't want to take his body parts against his will. Is the state going to...

Prof. MADHUBUTI: He's volunteering.

Ms. SMITH: He's volunteering.

GORDON: Well, he would have to volunteer.

Ms. SMITH: Is the state going to kill...

GORDON: He would have to volunteer the other parts. He's not volunteering them now. So I think that's what Michael's suggesting.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Right.

Mr. MEYERS: Right.

Ms. SMITH: Well, has anyone asked him? Let's say we ask him and he says yes. I say yes. I say do it...

GORDON: All right. So...

Ms. SMITH: ...if the state has already agreed.

GORDON: So the discussion here really is if this man is going to die, we might as well get something out of it for society, too, is essentially what we're saying here.

Ms. SMITH: That's the way I see it.

Mr. MEYERS: Yuck!

Prof. MADHUBUTI: This is what...

Ms. SMITH: That's the way I feel.

Mr. MEYERS: I don't agree with that. There's a dignity or lack of dignity here with respect to the human body and human life, and it's one thing for a person to make a conscious decision to help save his sister's life. It's another thing for the state to take a person who it has in custody and will not let go and says, `Hey, we want your body parts.' Absolutely not. That's unconstitutional...

Prof. MADHUBUTI: It's not working that way, Michael.

Mr. MEYERS: ...it's immoral.

Ms. SMITH: But it's not...

Prof. MADHUBUTI: It's not working that way.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, that's what it seems like you're suggesting.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: No, it--this is his sister.

Ms. SMITH: Yes.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: She has a blood type that is unusual, and he basically has agreed to help his sister stay alive, give his life and...

Mr. MEYERS: That's what I said. That's what I said.

Ms. SMITH: You want to talk about dignity, where lies the dignity when this woman could have a chance?

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Right.

Ms. SMITH: If she doesn't get a transplant, she's going to die. There's nothing they can do. That's a fait accompli.

GORDON: Well--and, Michael, you know, in...

Ms. SMITH: Where's the dignity in letting her...

GORDON: ...11th-hour negotiations, both sides need to compromise, and that might be, in fact, it for this gentleman. We'll continue to watch and see what happens there.

Let's move on to something that, quite frankly, has been talked about for quite some time, and some see this as the hypocrisy of separation of church and state. The words `In God We Trust' appear on, as we know, money, US currency. It's displayed at the entrances of the US Senate and the House of Representatives, but in North Carolina, local officials placed `In God We Trust' on the front of the Davidson County Government Center. They were brought to federal court to face a complaint that they were in violation of separation of church and state. When we look at this, Bev Smith, this is something that seemingly has been fought and debated for some time. When you see this particular case, what's your thought?

Ms. SMITH: Well, first I think that the person that brought the lawsuit ought to take a good look at the Constitution and the amendment. The amendment clearly says that a state should not establish a religion. Well, since when did a phrase, an affirmation, `In God We Trust,' become a religion? A religion is an organized club of people who worship similarly in culture and in ritual. That has nothing to do with the establishment of a religion, and I think it ought to be there. As a matter of fact, someone get me a chisel. I want to put it on the White House because we can't trust certain politicians. They lie a lot. I'd rather put my trust in God, and I'm really worried about where we're going with this, to the ridiculous.

Mr. MEYERS: As if the behavior of the people in the White House would change by chiseling the inscription `In God We Trust' on the White House, absolutely not. Look, at least it's not the same as `Jesus Saves.' I think if it was `Jesus Saves,' there would be a viable and legitimate lawsuit and a compelling lawsuit because Jesus is, yes, a form of religion, and it takes...

Ms. SMITH: How?

Mr. MEYERS: Because it takes Christianity over all other religions as an establishment of...

Ms. SMITH: But Christianity doesn't do this.

Mr. MEYERS: It's an establishment of religion when the government puts Jesus on...

Ms. SMITH: Christianity means Christ's followers.

Mr. MEYERS: ...the courthouse or ...(unintelligible)

GORDON: OK, but that's not--but Jesus' name is not on the courthouse.

Ms. SMITH: That's right.

GORDON: So let's stay with what is...

Mr. MEYERS: All right.

GORDON: ...and that's `In God We Trust.' Haki, what's your thought?

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, I think that `In God We Trust' you should remain on the dollar bill, because that's the God that this country trusts most of all. And I do believe in the separation of religion and church, and I think that it's important to realize that--well, certainly since 9/11 and most certainly since the major crusaders have gotten into the White House and the Congress--is that we're using God to almost confirm every act that this government is involved in. I think there's a serious problem there, especially in a country--in a world where you have 1.3 billion Muslims and one billion Hindus and, you know, you've got Jews and Buddhists and so forth. So I think we have to be very careful how we use God in this country. I think that once you put God into the argument, objectivity goes out through the window, that people are not able to look at an issue and to decide the merit or immerit--or non-merit of the issue and to think logically.

Ms. SMITH: But, God...

Mr. MEYERS: I agree with you.

Ms. SMITH: But, God...

Mr. MEYERS: I, too, am a strict separationist when it comes to religion and government, and I fear and dread what's going to come next. `In God We Trust' `Jesus Saves'--it's going to be on neon signs so that when motorists go onto the highways, like, they can see this 18-inch sign in North Carolina, `In God We Trust' is going to become equivalent to an attractive nuisance.

GORDON: But, Bev, let's strip it down to as common a form as we can. It would be difficult to--if you were trying to teach a child about separation of church and state.

Ms. SMITH: But this has nothing to do with church. It is a phrase, an affirmation...

GORDON: Well, no, I understand that. Let me finish the question.

Ms. SMITH: ...`In God We Trust.'

GORDON: Let me finish the question, Bev, and then take it, and that is simply this: If you were to sit a child on Capitol Hill and let them hear how often faith and God is evoked today in terms of politicians and then let them hear about someone taking a government, a state government to court for putting `In God We Trust,' this is, I think, where the hypocrisy of this whole debate comes in for some people.

Ms. SMITH: And what you should do with your child is sit down and talk about your child--to your child about the behavior and the people who are involved in the debate and where they are coming from with this debate. The Bible says, `Many will call me and I'll know them not.' Everyone who says that they are a Christian are not a Christ follower. Every religion, those that are cropping up even as we speak and those that date back to the time before Christ, worship a higher entity. In most cases, the words for those entities are different, but they all mean God.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, that's why they...

Ms. SMITH: `In God We Trust'...

Mr. MEYERS: That's why they have religious...

Ms. SMITH: ...which has nothing to do with...

GORDON: Hold on. Let her finish.

Ms. SMITH: ...organized religion.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, Bev, you know...

Mr. MEYERS: Well, that's why they have religious symbols on religious institutions in religious places like churches and temples and things like that. And people who do not have a religion, who do not believe in religion or have different religions don't want to see a particular religion on government property. Now I have to hasten to say that with respect to these plaintiffs, they've lost in court. `In God We Trust' has been regarded in the private courts as more patriotism or as a national motto, and it is a national motto, than it is an establishment of religion. I was surprised that in Ohio, the Ohio state 6th Circuit Court of Appeals--they approved `With God All Things Are Possible' as the accompanying...

Ms. SMITH: Another phrase.

Mr. MEYERS: ...(unintelligible). Yeah, mm-hmm.

Ms. SMITH: Another phrase.

GORDON: Haki, you wanted to say...

Prof. MADHUBUTI: I think that you have to...

Ms. SMITH: Another phrase.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: I think that both of you...

Mr. MEYERS: ...(Unintelligible) our religious rights.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: You've got to think that there's a large, large, large group of people in this country who do not believe in God. And I think that--and even those who do believe in God do not believe that God's name should be used in vain as it's being used each and every day.

Mr. MEYERS: Amen, brother.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: And most certainly...

Ms. SMITH: So should I be denied...

Prof. MADHUBUTI: And most certainly...

Ms. SMITH: ...because some people who are unscrupulous use it? Or should those of us--is it objective for you who don't believe not to have signs up? Or why don't you put a sign up saying `I don't believe in God'? But I would like phrases.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Well, I don't think...

Ms. SMITH: ...(Unintelligible)

Prof. MADHUBUTI: ...either one is necessary. I think that...

Mr. MEYERS: Watch that you don't believe.

Ms. SMITH: Well, but if you want to, shouldn't you have a right to? Why should I be denied the right? It's a phrase. What the heck are people afraid of? Saying `In God We Trust'? As we look at this society today...

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I think the compromise, Bev...

Ms. SMITH: ...you'd better trust in something.

Mr. MEYERS: The compromise, Bev, for me, was just leave it on the dollar bill. That's where it belongs.

Ms. SMITH: Well, it's on the dollar bill, it's on the front of Congress, and I want to chisel it on the White House, and Michael won't bring me the chisel.

Mr. MEYERS: And you want the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, too, right?

Ms. SMITH: You better believe it.

Prof. MADHUBUTI: Absolutely not.

GORDON: All right. On that, we'll say a prayer.

Ms. SMITH: Based on law. Study the Ten Commandments.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. MEYERS: Rather than say a prayer, let's meditate.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, Bev Smith, Haki Madhubuti, thank you all so very much for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Ms. SMITH: I'll pray for all of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Thank you, Bev. We need it.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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