Monday, May 07, 2007

False Freedom and the Culture of Death

As I've written in the past months, I have stopped being a conscientious objector in the war between the "culture of life" vs. the "culture of death." I have committed myself to being on active duty (on the side of life) in this war, which both this papacy and the last insists is real and not just the conjecture of pundits. I resisted the concept of such a war for a long time. It goes against the strong strain of Taoist philosophy I have nurtured within me since I first read the Tao Te Ching as a teenager. I also came of age at a time when pacifism was the only acceptable thinking person's solution to the resolution of conflict.

But the line between pacifism and pacification -- in the sense of appeasement -- is thin. For every Gandhi there are dozens of Chamberlains, well-meaning folks like myself who look for peace through the lens of a kind of "cheap grace" as Bonhoeffer (who knew a thing or two about response to conflict) called the living of the gospel at a shallow level that accomodates both Christian ideals and the popular idiocies of the current zeitgeist.

In our case, the zeitgeist accepts death as a solution to social problems. It does not argue that this is right but that it is expedient. It says that the best we can hope for in a pluralistic society is to set ourselves up to judge which human lives are expendable, to set human life itself at the service of those who are able to manipulate it at both ends of the spectrum.

Richard Doerflinger in 2000 put it this way. Seven years later, his observations bear repeating:

False Freedom and the Culture of Death

by Richard M. Doerflinger


In his 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope John Paul II sounded an alarm. In the midst of a culture that congratulates itself on being enlightened and progressive on matters of human rights, he said, we are very much in danger of giving in to a "culture of death." Modern debates on abortion and euthanasia are a symptom and leading edge of something more profound and insidious -- an entire view of the world that will lead us to forsake our ideals of human dignity and equality and "revert to a state of barbarism" (EV 14).

What could the Holy Father have meant by that? What is the evidence that some kind of consistent ideology is taking hold of our aspirations for human progress and tainting the discussion of very different issues affecting human life? And what kind of challenge does this pose to us as supporters of social justice, and as believers?


Two challenges

For some answers let us consider recent developments on two issues that at first glance may seem quite different: human embryo research and assisted suicide.

… With human embryo research, the question that seems to need answering is: Is this really "human life" at all? Even if we can all agree to respect human life, isn't this little product of conception really just a conglomerate of a few cells, too undeveloped to have human status? Can the uncertain status of this entity really outweigh the needs of many persons for the life-saving treatments that embryo research may provide?

… In 1999 the Clinton Administration launched a campaign for federal funding of research requiring destruction of live human embryos… What is truly startling … is that proponents of the funding do not deny that these experiments destroy human lives. President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) acknowledges that the project will involve the government in destroying human embryos. And in transmitting NBAC's report on this issue to the President, chairman Harold Shapiro noted "wide agreement" in our nation that "human embryos deserve respect as a form of human life." In 1994, an earlier panel advising the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said much the same thing: According to the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel, the early embryo "warrants serious moral consideration as a developing form of human life." Yet both groups unanimously favor killing these embryos for research purposes. By anyone's definition, this is an odd way to show "respect."

Why would panels favoring destructive embryo research make such statements? It turns out that they are forced by the facts to do so. The human status of the early embryo has become more and more difficult to deny. Twenty years ago, researchers (and some theologians) tried to claim that the first two weeks of human development involve a "pre-embryo," a largely disorganized mass of cells with no individuality. But the scientific data have caused serious problems for this claim, showing that later landmarks in embryonic development are only manifestations of events occurring much earlier. Scientific testimony to the Human Embryo Research Panel confirmed that human development is a continuum from the one-celled stage onward. Even the Panel's own vice-chairman for scientific issues, a noted abortion practitioner, ended up saying that the term "pre-embryo" is "ridiculous."

But these findings have not slowed down the juggernaut for lethal experiments. Proponents instead resort to arguing that some human lives are not worth valuing or protecting -- especially when the life or health of undoubted "persons" may be at stake.

The Human Embryo Research Panel, for example, endorsed a theory proposed by one of its own members, ethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth College. Green favors what he calls (in the title of one of his articles) "a Copernican revolution in our thinking about life's beginning and life's end." It is time to realize, he says, that there is nothing "out there" to answer life-and-death questions for us. In short, there is nothing inherent in any human being that requires us to respect him or her as a person. Any decision to recognize a human being's rights as a "person" is a social convention, based on a enlightened self-interest [emphasis mine, Rae]. By denying "personhood" to this being so it can be subjected to deadly experiments, can we benefit people like ourselves without undermining society's willingness to view us as "persons"?

In this way, traditional ethical norms on human experimentation are turned on their head. Society can no longer say that certain things must never be done to fellow human beings, regardless of the possible benefits of the experiment. If those benefits are great enough, they justify claiming that these beings did not have human rights in the first place! Thus the weakest and most dependent human beings are re-defined as mere research material for the benefit of the powerful.


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