Sunday, March 20, 2005

Culture of Life

The Terri Schiavo story is one that truly deserves to be called heartbreaking: A woman in a vegetative states for 15 years, her family members bitterly torn over conflicting desires to, on the one hand, accept fate and move on and, on the other, to hold out hope. Whatever the final outcome of this case, there will be no winner unless, by some event that truly would have to be considered a miracle, Mrs. Schiavo were to return to full consciousness. Any other conclusion simply ends the main thread of the story.
But in reading the news accounts of the latest maneuvers in this deeply disturbing case, I am struck by the ideologies at work: The "death with dignity" advocates urging the courts and legislatures to stay out of the case and allow Mrs. Schiavo's husband, the legal next of kin, to have her feeding tube removed so that she may die; the "culture of life" proponents arguing, in contrast, that defenseless patients such as Mrs. Schiavo should be protected and their lives preserved.
It's impossible for me to call either position wrong.
But as I step back from the emotions of the story, I become interested by the fact that when the word "life" is invoked in political arguments, the focus always seems to be on its endpoints. Abortion, capital punishment, euthenasia, genocide. That is the context in which we bring the word "life" into politics.
Certainly birth and death are dramatic, and often traumatic. We are riveted by these events. But life is a continuum, is it not? It's what happens between birth and death. (The word, by the way, comes from Germanic roots and refers to the body). Opportunity, education, poverty, love, sex, sickness, service, war, crime and a myriad of others all happen during our lives. Why isn't the word "life" invoked every time we discuss these?
The Schiavo case is messy, and it's scary, and it's painful -- and large numbers of people care about it. Because death is a prospect that faces all of us eventually, we feel we have a stake in this battle, even if we aren't sure how we feel about it.
What I want to say here is that I believe "life" and the "quality of life" should be the overriding concerns of our government and politics, and that each and every political decision should addressed in the context of our philosophies about life.
Maybe we already do so subconsciously, indirectly, intuitively. But I would argue that we would be well-served as a society to make these thoughts explicit, to put them at the center of our political debates. Focusing on the issue of life would, I contend, bring our politics home to us, establish a connection between seemingly arcane policy matters and our daily existence -- in effect, help us to care.
People apathetic to politics will sometimes say that the debates don't affect their lives. Those of us who are more involved know that this is not true. But I am concerned that not enough effort goes into helping people to understand why, for example, the decision to make the neo-conservative imperialist Paul Wolfowitz head of the World Bank is worth worrying about in personal terms (I would argue that it's in some ways a safety issue -- the appointment of Wolfowitz is another "up yours" message from the U.S. government to the planet, and one that I fear will lead to hardening of the perception that the United States lacks respect for other nations. And I continue to believe that that perception of lack of respect is one of the leading causes of the resentment that leads to attacks on U.S. citizens. So in essence, George W. Bush has threatened my life and the lives of my loved ones, when we travel abroad, when we work, when we attempt to pursue our inalienable right to happiness by exploring the world).
Issues such as bankruptcy law "reform" can be difficult to understand when couched in terms of Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13. But understood as the effects of a credit card company foreclosing on the mortgage of a family whose head is suffering from cancer, it hits home hard.
Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, teamed the word "Life" with "Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and described them as inalienable rights, arguing that the purpose of government was to preserve these human rights. I think we all need to remember that cogent argument as we debate public policy: It's all about -- and always about -- preserving our rights.
For progressives, that means effectively arguing that rights are not just about the freedom of individuals. It means that we are all in the same boat, and that my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are all tied up with the similar rights of others. To give the devil all due credit, conservatives have been somewhat more successful with tying issues to "life" than have progressives, because they have been able to appeal to the selfish instincts of people. Progressives, on the other hand, have to make the somewhat circular argument that what benefits society and humanity as a whole ultimately will benefit the individual. It's not all about me, it's all about us.
George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II both have famously aligned themselves with a "culture of life" centered almost entirely around the issue of abortion rights, which both oppose. The Pope has the consistency of vision to also oppose the death penalty. Consistency not being a quality that is either valued or particularly present in the Bush administration, the President has no trouble diverging from his support of life on the capital punishment issue.
The rest of us need to take the hint, and make sure that every issue that affects politicians is explained to our family, friends, peers, colleagues and opponents in terms of its effect on life -- the life of the individual, the life of United States society, the life of the planet.
Friday was the third time in the past five years that Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed by court order. Today could mark the third time it has been ordered to be reinserted. Most of us will be troubled about this case no matter what happens. But some value can come from this family's pain if it can help us to understand that every decision we make, or choose not to make, is about life.