The Culture of Life (American Style)

Before turning to the main subject, I would like to praise religious persons of uncommon good will. I am thinking of medical missionaries throughout the world. I am thinking of the missionary priests in Latin America during the 1500s who tried to save natives from the evils of European conquest, and of their latter-day counterparts who composed the Liberation Theology movement until it was squelched by the late pope. I am thinking of the four nuns killed in El Salvador. I am thinking of those religiously-inspired civil rights workers and martyrs, of whom Martin Luther King Jr. was only the most illustrious. And many, many others.
With these noble deeds in mind, I look at the "Culture of Life" and I ask, "How could an idea like that ever get started?"
This is not a completely fair estimate, however. It depends on which version of the Culture of Life we're talking about.
The first developed expression of the Culture of Life is Pope Paul II's Evangelium vitae (Gospel of Life). This is a long document, replete with biblical/theological references, aimed at protecting life in all its forms and situations. It condemns a wide variety of avowed evils, emphasizing abortion (along with embryonic stem cell research) and euthanasia, but also concerning itself with peace, social justice and charity. The following are among the evils it sees as poisoning human society: capital punishment; "disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain;" "an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes;" war; the arms trade; genocide; and harming the "ecological balance." The document commands respect. Whether it commands allegiance, of course, depends on whether or not one accepts its bed-rock assumptions.
"Culture of Life" was picked up by social conservatives in America, but with basic changes - or distortions. Its American champions freely chose among the trends that Pope John Paul had denounced. Conveniently forgotten were the death penalty, war, exploitation of workers, genocide, fair division of the world's resources, and ecological balance. Enthusiastically embraced was the Pope's denunciation of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia (as exemplified in the Terry Schiavo case).
Let's look at the Culture of Life as adopted by social conservatives here in the U.S. Two points about this viewpoint deserve notice:
1) All the injunctions are negative ("shall nots"). Positive measures to preserve life, not to mention enhancing it, are non-existent, even for the most vulnerable. There is no mention of pre-natal care, nor infant care, nor health insurance for children (or anyone else), nor increased income for the poor or near-poor, nor initiatives to prevent warfare. And so on.
2) Life is to a large extent equated with biological processes. The recipients of protection are not conscious and functioning human beings, but rather non-conscious or barely conscious beings. The biological process of life is valued, not the enhancement and expression of conscious life. Culture of Life it may be, but not a culture of living.
Of course, Culture of Life advocates see no distinction between biological processes and conscious functioning. It's all life. A passage from Evangelium vitae illuminates the issue. Condemning embryonic stem-cell research, it states, "If spare embryos are destroyed or used for research, that reduces human life to the level of simply biological material to be freely disposed of." Others of us, of course, see no distinction between such embryos and biological material to begin with.
The significant distinction, I would argue, is between "human life" and "the life of a human person." I can be described as "human life" but so can my fingernail. We're both human tissue -- biological material. But being a human person, or having the life of a human person, is something else again. My fingernail does not have the attributes of a person, in particular those attributes that derive from consciousness. And neither does an embryo in a laboratory dish.
Common sense and the law also seem to recognize this distinction. College scholarships for laboratory embryos are unlikely, for example, as is prosecution of laboratory personnel for destroying them.
Of course, a desperately ill person considering euthanasia (or a terminally unconscious person for whom euthanasia is being considered) is not an embryo. But the same principle applies, theological dogma about the value of suffering notwithstanding. Conscious life is non-existent in these cases, or if it exists it has negative value only; still the Culture of Life insists that the biological processes be maintained.
In short, a human person, capable of consciousness and of human functioning, is one thing. A piece of tissue - biological material - is quite another thing.
But Culture of Life advocates don't recognize the distinction. For them, a laboratory embryo is on a par with a functioning human being. (If this seems far-fetched, consider those who doubt that trading the "life" of an embryo from a laboratory in order to save the life of a grown human is morally justified.) And conversely, a fully developed human being is on a par with a laboratory embryo. The Culture of Life tends to degrade our lives by construing us primarily as biological processes, not as conscious, aware, decision-making persons. The Culture of Life is a Culture of Suffocation.
At bottom, therefore, the issue is how we view our lives - and what we as a society do about it. We are conscious beings - that is non-controversial, but it gives rise to the question: Are we to enhance our lives as conscious beings to the utmost, giving everyone the greatest possible opportunity to live an aware and active life, bound freely to one another? Or are we to go in the direction of life determined by biological processes and dogmatic principles? To repeat from a previous column (Issue 4): "It's the Grand Inquisitor all over again."
But there is still the special case of abortion. For according to the current argument of abortion-rights foes, abortion is murder, and the victim is not a mere embryo isolated in a dish. (Advocates of abortion rights, of course, hold that up to a certain point at least, the embryo/fetus cannot be a victim because it is not a person.)
If foes of abortion rights could prove that abortion is murder, in the straightforward and literal sense, they would have a virtually airtight case. For murder is not a private affair; it is harm done by one person to another. Furthermore, there is a social consensus that murder must be prohibited and severely punished. So if abortion is proven to be murder, both the public and the courts would have to agree, in reason, on its prohibition just as they agree on the prohibition of murder. The privacy argument that now supports the legality of abortion would be swept aside.
(Note also that if abortion is murder, it certainly is first-degree murder. There are no extenuating circumstances -- unless the health of the pregnant woman is endangered, in which case abortion is usually not considered punishable anyway. And the pregnant woman would have to be charged with at least being an accessory to murder.)
The difficulty, for abortion-rights opponents, is in the proving. The Supreme Court and the public at large have every right to say, "Why should we believe the embryo/fetus is a person just because you say so?" Science can't prove the case (and how ironic if social conservatives appeal to science on this point when they dismiss it on so many others.) Nor is there a consensus among the public.
The abortion-rights opponents claim that abortion is murder and when asked for a reason they say that according to our religious convictions, life begins with conception. Thus they import their religious convictions into the definition of murder, which is then used to form the law - a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the First Amendment. They can't have it both ways: They can't make the objective, factual claim that abortion is murder, and then back that claim up by appeal to their subjective religious dogma.
In short, foes of abortion rights have a tough row to hoe (no pun intended) in proving their claim that abortion is murder.
In the meantime, I see strong hints that they don't really believe abortion to be murder. Here are several pieces of anecdotal evidence, in no particular order of importance:
1) In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court overrode a Texas law prohibiting abortion (and thereby, of course, set a precedent applying to all state law). That Texas law therefore tells us something about the reasons for abolishing abortion. While the law said nothing explicitly on the subject, the prescribed sentence is certainly significant. A person guilty of abortion was to be sentenced to "not less than two nor more than five years" in the penitentiary. (Article 1191 of Texas code, per Roe vs. Wade decision, FN 1.) This was not a sentence that fit the crime of first-degree murder! The rationale behind the Texas law must have been something other - and something less serious - than murder.
2) In a New York Times article of October 5 on Supreme Court candidate Harriet Miers' religious beliefs, her former campaign manager is reported to have said, "Ms. Miers said she had been in favor in her younger years of a woman's right to have an abortion, but her views evolved against abortion, influenced largely by her born-again religious beliefs." Ms. Miers is extremely intelligent and well aware of the world -- and has been throughout her adult life. If she considered abortion to be murder, then why did she approve of it in the earlier period of her life? Nothing about the nature of abortion nor about the nature of murder changed during the time of her religious conversion. Thus her opposition to abortion must have had some other reason behind it, other than the belief that abortion is murder.
3) In a most interesting column in the July 11 Newsweek, Anna Quindlen reports on the emergency contraceptive called "Plan B" or " the morning-after pill." She describes it as "an emergency contraceptive that works by inhibiting ovulation, fertilization or implantation. It won't work if you're already pregnant, but it will stop you from becoming pregnant. . . ." Yet she also reports efforts by abortion-rights opponents to prohibit Plan B. One far-right-wing organization, she said, opposes all such medications on the grounds that they constitute "early abortions."
So here's a clear case in which organized opponents of abortion rights condemn abortion (as they see it), in a case where the "abortion" could not possibly be murder - for there is no embryo to be murdered.
But if these opponents do not really believe that abortion is murder, what is their real reason? The probable answer, I believe, is The Natural Law Theory. This is a theological and philosophical viewpoint with a long history during which it has appeared in many forms, but in essence it holds that all beings, human beings included, have a set of natural tendencies (placed by God, according to the religious versions). Morality consists in acting in accordance with our human natural tendencies, one of which is procreation. Procreation is prevented by abortion (as well as by contraception, such as Plan B.) Thus abortion is against Natural Law and therefore immoral and sinful. In Anna Quindlen's column we see perfect examples of people whose opposition to abortion conforms perfectly with Natural Law theory - they condemn the morning-after pill simply because it obstructs procreation -- though they don't mention Natural Law and in all probability are totally unaware of it.
But how could abortion-rights opponents fail to know their own mind when they claim that abortion is murder? Well, in the first place it's not surprising that people are unaware of their own attitudes. Consider racism - many people in all positions on the political spectrum (myself included) may believe they are free of racism but when they are tested by actual events they find otherwise. William Bennett is a recent example.
Secondly, the conclusions to be drawn from the abortion-is-murder rationale and the Natural Law rationale are similar. Natural Law holds that the embryo must not be destroyed. So does the abortion-is-murder argument. But the concept of Natural Law is hardly a household word, whereas the concept of murder is quite familiar.
So I think that what has happened is this: The precepts of Natural Law theory have been implanted, through the centuries, in the minds of many religious adherents, but the theory itself has been forgotten. Thus people may be convinced that destroying the embryo/fetus is wrong, and putting the cart before the horse they jump to the most obvious explanation, namely, that abortion is murder.
Let's note, finally, that if the rationale behind prohibiting abortion is that it violates Natural Law, as opposed to its being murder, then abortion-rights opponents are playing an entirely different game. For there is no consensus against breaking Natural Law, as there is against murder. Natural Law theory is a moral viewpoint inspired by religion; therefore to make it the basis of law violates the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.
So abortion is not really the special case it seemed to be. We have no reason to believe that it constitutes murder, and if my suspicions about the real reason behind opposition to abortion rights are correct, the anti-abortion-rights movement is of a piece with the rest of the "Culture of Life" in trying to impose their constrictive morality on the rest of us.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 1, Issue 9, Posted 03.41 AM / 20th October 2005.