The Culture of Life and Death
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
We have heard much about “the culture of life” in the last month. Terri Schiavo‘s pathetic denouement claimed 24/7 coverage on the national news for two weeks, and it might have continued after her expiration date had the Pope not upstaged her. If there were a heaven (which of course there’s not), it would be interesting to hear the conversation between the defrocked soul of Karol Wojtyla and Theresa Marie Schiavo in the waiting room of the Holy Office. Would she wonder to him why her conscious spirit had to remain trapped in that unresponsive and uncommunicative body for fifteen years, instead of being liberated to enjoy the bliss of the afterlife?
But such questions are for believers. For those who doubt the existence of the Happy Haunting Grounds, end-of-life issues should inspire thorny ethical conundra. Despite the insistence of some who sided with Michael Schiavo, stopping a heart cannot and should not be an easy decision; for fifteen years, it obviously was not easy for him. The same goes for the end-of-birth issue–i.e., abortion. When it comes down to it, “life” can be defined in myriad ways, as can “quality of life,” and it will never be possible to get everyone to agree. And that is why we have philosophy, and the more thoughtful theologies, and a court system that at least theoretically judges case by case on the basis of precedent and negotiation for the sake of society at large.
In the Schiavo case the courts decidedly sided with her husband. Actually, he might have solved his problem and made everyone happy–although Terri’s feelings would have remained unknown and unknowable–if he had just ceded her to her parents, the Schindlers. They could have kept her body going in its vegetative state in perpetuity, and willed it to her brother or other family members when they passed away.
Bush and his pocket congress took the Schindlers’ side, a decision–it is now blatantly apparent–made primarily to play to their religious base, and dropped like a smart bomb when polls showed that nearly eighty percent of the American public resented their interference in this delicate family matter. W. readily turned back to his real religious passion, touring the red lands to tout the “salvation” of Social Security.
It is probably just a rumor that, with the Pope’s passing, the Prez’s PR department is trying to copyright His Holiness’s phrase “the culture of life.” In any case, like Faux News’s claim on the term “fair and balanced,” the confiscation would likely not hold up in court. And Bush’s America no more deserves the one slogan than does Murdoch’s agitprop factory the other.
The Thief-in-Chief’s use of the phrase in the 2004 election represents what the British call “dog-whistle” politics: the use of language that is understood in its narrow sense only by a target demographic while whizzing unchallenged past the majority. By copping the Pope’s words, the Bush-Rove mean machine hopes to gather all Catholics under the Republican revival tent, cementing them with their evangelical base into a majority that will bring about their much anticipated One-Party State and Thousand-Year Reich. After all, orthodox Catholics and evangelicals agree on two major points: they both oppose abortion, and both know the others are going to Hell for practicing the wrong form of Christianity. And if there were a hell (which of course there’s not), they would probably both be right.
Even on their own doctrinal terms, few true believers in the U.S. fully subscribe to “the culture of life” as defined by the Pope. George W. Bush definitely does not. The Holy Father opposed the death penalty; Bush–along with his party, most evangelicals, a significant number of Catholics, and a majority of Americans–supports it. John Paul excoriated American-style capitalism for its promotion of secular hedonism and consumerism, its hostility toward charity, its demonization of the poor. Bush is the poster boy for the worst tendencies of capitalism; he lets nothing stand in the way of the greedy aggrandizement of the already wealthy. The Pope spoke out against militarism and the waging of war, and had particularly harsh words about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The majority of American Christians supported the war. The Catholic school in our neighborhood sported a banner painted by the students that read: “We Pray for [flag picture].” There was no trace of any quotation by the pontiff inveighing against the invasion. For those good Catholics as for their evangelical brethren, it was Bush, not John Paul, who spoke for God when it was time once more to slaughter Arabs.
The writer of these words counts as close friends a couple of left-leaning Catholics who genuinely deserve to call themselves pro-life: like the Pope they dislike not only abortion but war, capital punishment, and the punishing inequities of capitalism–though unlike John Paul they supported liberation theology. They are not without sin, but they are at least consistent. During last year’s election, they spoke of the contradictions they saw among fellow Catholics-parishioners who shared the Pope’s views on reproductive matters, but who insisted His Holiness was simply out of touch regarding the invasion of Iraq. These friends noted the hypocrisy of the bishops in Colorado and elsewhere who warned Catholics against voting for any candidate, the Catholic John Kerry included, who lacked a firm stance against abortion, while implicitly endorsing candidates like Bush who embrace the culture of war and the death penalty.
And they don’t just kill the guilty. For example, of the estimated thousands of Iraqi civilians–the true number is a state secret–killed during the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, half were under the age of 15. Given the birth rates in that part of the world, a substantial percentage of the total dead had to have been pregnant women. Where was the concern for their unborn in the White House, in the Republican-dominated Congress, or among fundamentalist churches and pressure groups? Under the regime of western sanctions that followed the first Gulf War, the juvenile mortality rate rose to four percent of the childhood population. In the two years since the conquest of Baghdad, the U.N. reported recently, that percentage has doubled.
But George the Baldfaced showed his contempt for human life even before occupying the White House. As governor of Texas, an otherwise ceremonial role, his main functions were approving executions and making the state safe for toxic waste sites. As High Executioner, his finest moment came in January 1995, when at the recommendation of his attorney general Alberto Gonzalez he plunged the ultimate needle into one Jesse D. Jacobs, even though prosecutors admitted he was innocent of the crime for which he had been convicted. Yes, this is the same Alberto Gonzalez that as W.’s legal counselor signed off on all that life-affirming torture at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.
Furthermore, we could wax positively scientific on all the deleterious results of environmental degradation, the gutting of consumer protections, the cutbacks in public health programs, and all the other choices in favor of profit over human life made by an administration that, at the bottom of its calloused and sclerotic heart, values only self-serving power.
As Howard Dean told Mississippi Democrats not long ago, we could use pro-life leaders who also care about people after they’re born. Bush is not really pro-life; he is simply anti-abortion.