Is the Tide Turning Against a Culture of Life?

Terri Schiavo is a test case for what President George W. Bush, following Pope John Paul II, calls the “culture of life.” Not that she wanted to be, poor woman. Though she leaves the ranks of the living, she will remain in the ranks of the fought-over.

The phrase “culture of life” refers to the Bible: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:17). Whose life? In what circumstances? How many blessings and cursings accompany the choice? These are the questions that arise when prophecy encounters law and politics.

The hardest case for the culture of life is capital punishment. Some of those who wanted Terri Schiavo to live were distressed that President Bush could not simply reach down and pardon her. He couldn’t do that because of her innocence; pardons are for the likes of Marc Rich, not for the guiltless. But the culture of life, in its most aggressive form, wants to save the guilty, too. The week before Easter, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a campaign to abolish the death penalty in the United States. (President Bush parts from the culture of life on this point.) There is a long rap against the death penalty, based on bungled convictions and last-minute rescues by DNA tests. But the nub of the opposition to capital punishment is unwillingness to inflict the ultimate penalty. The Catholic bishops would maintain Brian Nichols, the Atlanta murderer, and Osama bin Laden on the public tab to the end of their natural days. They say they would do it from respect for life, but protecting multiple murderers pushes respect for life so far that it turns on itself. Whether the bishops have a sneaking fascination with the bloody man who does what they dare not, or a Graham GreeneĀ­-ish contempt for the merely law-abiding who supply his victims, only their confessors know.

Abortion is a much easier argument for the culture of life to make, though in fact it runs into the greatest political difficulties. The unborn are pure potential. The world is all before them, as it was before Milton’s Adam and Eve when they left paradise. The mere betting man, leave aside theologians, would let a fetus have his shot. In practice, however, a laissez-faire policy towards the unborn requires another human being, the mother, to set aside a chunk of her life, which is a powerful contrary interest. So abortion has been legal all these years, though pro-lifers keep up the struggle against it.

The Schiavo case threw us into the middle ground of the ailing. When are the crippled and the old as good as dead? When, therefore, can we kill them without a qualm? Our motives in these matters are partly aesthetic. From Homer to Hollywood, our civilization has valued beauty and strength. We turn away from ugliness and weakness, and we turn away, even more sharply, from the thought of being ugly and weak ourselves. Robert Conquest put it best in the last line of his limerick on the seven ages of man.

Seven ages: first, puking and mewling;

Then very pissed off at one’s schooling;

Then fucks; then fights;

Then settling chaps’ rights;

Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.

Allied to our sense of aesthetics is our pride in self-reliance. Worse even than drool is the inability to wipe it away. Urine, feces, snot-didn’t we gain control over those decades ago? Yet here they come again, back by no popular demand. We fear dependence on the kindness of relatives or-what is more likely in nursing homes-of strangers.

Suffering is the final chapter of our anxiety, though you would think that a pharmaceutical industry that can make Mark McGuire hit 70 home runs in a single season could also blunt any raging pain. There is no pill for the mental suffering of anticipation, however.

Science gives us no answers. It is a demented long-distance runner, madly striking problems and solutions with each alternating stride. Scientists wrest years from death, then scramble to make them bearable.

The interests of the baby boomers-me and, very likely, you-tug in contrary directions. They are now watching their parents, the greatest generation, fade away. They have seen plugs pulled; they have pulled them. On the other hand, they may not relish the thought of Generation X bundling them off before their time. If we don’t fix the Social Security system, Generation X’s reserves of human charity will be more than usually depleted.

For years, family doctors and hospitals have made discreet use of the kindly overdose of morphine. But law is uncomfortable operating in the shadows. Where should its lines be drawn? Politics can teach us nothing about moral philosophy, but it does train us in figuring out who is winning, who is losing. When we look at the dynamics of life and death, which side is sweeping all before it? Is it the Christians praying in the street outside Terri Schiavo’s hospice? Is it Congress, whose two-party system is the serious and the showboaters? Is it George and Jeb Bush? Or is it a handful of medical experts, and the judges who heed them? Two branches of the federal government wrapped themselves in awesome majesty to save a woman’s life, but the bench held firm. In Europe, the tide is even stronger. The Dutch practice euthanasia so briskly that they will kill themselves even before the Islamists get around to it.

Slippery-slope arguments are the poor relatives in the family of disputation; real logicians, we feel, have no truck with such stuff. But politicians make them all the time. The Declaration of Independence is a slippery-slope argument: George III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” have “in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny”; if absolute tyranny had been already established, Jefferson couldn’t be writing. Better stand with the losing side on this one. Make your own arrangements, but keep the law as far away as possible.