A Culture of Living Death
By Alex Epstein (San Francisco Chronicle, April 1, 2005; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 1, 2005; South Florida Sun-Sentinel, April 6, 2005)
Religious conservatives are calling the death of Terri Schiavo a betrayal of "the sanctity of human life." We must, they say, replace our existing culture with a new "culture of life." "It should be our goal as a nation," proclaims President Bush, "to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected."
The "sanctity of human life" has been a rallying cry for religious conservatives not just in the Schiavo case, but in their opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide as such, and in their opposition to all abortion and embryonic stem cell research. By doing everything possible to preserve embryos, fetuses, and the incurably ill or vegetative, they say, we will bring about a "culture of life." "The problem we face . . ." declares conservative icon Rush Limbaugh, "is . . . a culture of death. From abortion on demand . . . to embryonic stem cell research [to] assisted suicide."
But what would life actually be like in their so-called "culture of life"?
Consider a world without euthanasia and assisted suicide. Individuals with incurable and unbearable diseases would not be able to die with dignity at a time of their own choosing, but would be subjected to a protracted existence of often unspeakable agony. Their loved ones would have to endure torturous months or years seeing what was once a vibrant human being persist as a mass of pain or a vegetable--just as Michael Schiavo has had to see his wife for the last 15 years, in a state incapable of emotion, memory, or thought.
Or consider a world in which abortion were illegal, another staple of the "culture of life." Pregnant women who rationally desired to abort--whether because of accidental pregnancy, rape, birth defects, or danger to their lives--would be forced to undergo 20 years of enslavement to the needs of children they did not want to give birth to, or attempt dangerous, back-alley abortions, the kind that crippled or killed untold numbers of women before Roe v. Wade. To prohibit abortion would be to sentence countless women to spiritual--and sometimes literal--death.
Finally, consider a world without embryonic stem cell research. The stem cells that can be extracted from microscopic, 150-cell embryos have the potential to become any other type of human cell--and thus, say scientists, be used in therapies that could save or enhance millions of lives. To stop stem-cell research would be to deprive every one of these millions--including those with heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's--of a longer, better life.
To uphold these positions in the name of the "sanctity of life" is a colossal fraud. The so-called "culture of life" would not benefit human life, but cause massive suffering and death.
What could possibly justify the religious conservatives' crusade for such a world? "God's will," they answer. Our lives belong to God, they say, and He commands us not to end them "unnaturally," no matter how unbearable they become. God sanctifies bits of protoplasm, they say, and thus commands young women to abandon their ambitions in order to raise unwanted children, and commands everyone to abandon the breathtaking promise of a new field of research.
This is the rise of the same medieval mentality that demanded rejection of the life-enhancing developments of anesthesia, the dissection of corpses, and birth control.
The religious conservatives do not value actual human life; they are consistent followers of the Christian ideal that human life is properly lived in sacrifice to God, and that suffering is proof of virtue. The worship of suffering is fundamental to Christianity, a religion whose central figure is glorified for dying a horrific death for the sins of mankind. A prominent religious conservative commented on the Schiavo case, "Terry Schiavo . . . is suffering in obedience to God's will." He added: "Isn't suffering in pursuit of God's will the exact center of religious life?"
This is the culture of death--of living death.
Human life is sacred--not because of supernatural declaration, but because of the unique nature and glorious potential of the individual, rational human life: to think, to create, to love, to experience pleasure, to achieve happiness here on earth. A true "culture of life" would leave individuals free to pursue their own happiness--free from coercive injunctions to sacrifice themselves to religious dogma. Such a culture is what we must seek to create, as we do everything possible to fight religious conservatives' culture of living death.
Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff
at ARI between 2004 and 2011.