The Religious Right's Culture of Living Death
By Alex Epstein (Coeur d'Alene Press, April 22, 2007)
Applauding the Supreme Court's decision to uphold a ban on so-called partial birth abortions, President Bush called it a victory for "building a culture of life in America."
The idea of a "culture of life" has been a rallying cry for religious conservatives in their opposition to all abortion and embryonic stem cell research, and in their opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide. 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 "culture of life"?
Consider a world in which abortion were illegal--which is the exact meaning of the President's pledge, following the Supreme Court's verdict, to "continue to work for the day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law." 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.
Or consider another staple of the "culture of life"--a world in which euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal. 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 as a vegetable--just as, in the now-famous case of Terry Schiavo, her husband Michael had to see his wife for 15 years in a state incapable of emotion, memory, or thought.
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 the possibility of a longer, better life.
To uphold these positions in the name of the sanctity of life is a colossal fraud. A "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 a supernatural being, they say, and He commands us not to end them "unnaturally," no matter how unbearable they become. He 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 a supernatural being, 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. Several years ago, a prominent religious conservative said of 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 genuine 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.