continuity and the culture of death
1 a: the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body b: a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings c: an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction
~the definition of Life, from the Merriam Webster dictionary (online).
I cannot reconcile myself with the four pillars of the “culture of death.” Each pillar finds its support at times by various proponents at many points across the political spectrum, making the discussion of life vs death very difficult to pin down politically. To me, abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia and war are all acts which end the life of a person (or persons) – either a very young person (or fetus), a very bad (or perhaps tragically innocent) person, an enemy, or a person who is either very old or in a great deal of emotional or physical pain. They are all living beings in possession of a soul, however damnably bad or temporarily interred to the womb that soul may be. Soul aside, if you happen to not believe in it, they are still human beings possessed of a potentiality that death will snuff out entirely.
A fetus possesses the potentiality of full personhood. Indeed, there is little else a fetus could become save a baby. The point at which life begins, scientifically speaking, is the moment of conception. Philosophically, of course, life is easily redefined. The debate over abortion often falls on this point. Ironically, outside of the abortion debate few arguments exist about say the beginning of life for a plant (germination) on either side of the political spectrum.
A criminal condemned to death possess the potentiality to change, to find remorse, salvation etc. They are also, as I mentioned above, quite possibly innocent. Beyond this, I oppose the death penalty because it oversteps the reasonable bounds of the state – and in a democracy in particular makes citizens complicit in the extinguishing of human life, whether or not they wish to be.
War, is of course, a difficult concept to grapple with because it is not (always) the decision of a powerful entity to take the life of a non-powerful entity (think: mother and fetus; state and condemned; etc.). It takes two to tango, as the saying goes. However preemptive, expansionary, or aggressive wars can rightly be called unjust. They take the potentiality of peace away from another party – the invaded state or tribe or region.
Assisted suicide generally involves the will of an individual over themselves. I can envision a state of affairs in which euthanasia becomes the accepted function of the state over people deemed incapable of choosing for themselves (as a matter of efficiency, perhaps), which is not a totally unreasonable fear. (Read Lois Lowry’s The Giver) Even without such insidious action by the state, is it possible that the act of assisting someone to end their life robs them of their potential future? A future which could include breakthroughs in medical science to remove their pain, cure their disease, etc. or a future which might bring some unexpected happiness to assuage their depression? Or for those simply too old to want to go on living, perhaps a natural death on their own without the need of an assistant to act as usher?
I find that my most difficult personal struggle is with abortion, for reasons not exactly linked to the act itself. Whether or not a woman should have the right to choose to bring a pregnancy to term is almost beside the point in the end – a woman doesn’t need to have that right. She can make that decision whether or not the right is given to her. She has that capacity. And so, when imagining a future abortion black market and the inherent dangers such a market would introduce to mothers and fetuses alike, I find myself worrying. I worry that it might make matters worse. The life of the mother is sacred, too, and in a black market the most desperate mothers – and especially the poor and the young mothers – would be at a much higher risk then they are now. This hardly seems just.
In all of this there is the matter of continuity and compromise. It always strikes me as odd when I listen to these conservatives who oppose abortion but cheer-lead the war in Iraq, or who chatter on about the value of life and then condone the death penalty. Similarly, liberals who oppose the death penalty but don’t seem to even grasp the possibility that the fetus may also be a living human being and that there should be no limits at all on abortion rights seem out of touch somehow – their reasoning incongruous.
Then there is the matter of the purpose of our medical providers – which is to heal – and how that is changed somehow by procedures like euthanasia and abortion. No matter how one feels about individual rights, it is impossible to deny that the role of a healer is shifted a great deal by these acts. Even if philosophically the healer in question thinks they are doing the right thing (and I give them all the benefit of doubt) by helping someone in pain or a mother who just doesn’t feel capable of motherhood. Then again, angels of mercy – those doctors and nurses who “mercifully” end unwitting patients lives – feel they are doing the right thing as well, but we see their actions as abberations of the medical profession and what it stands for. Does it all boil down to choice? And at what point does individual choice become superior to other societal concerns?
In a Battlestar Galactica episode the President of the Colonies is faced with the decision to override that choice – a right the fictional citizens of the twelve colonies had long been given – when she bans abortion due to the fact that the human race has been almost entirely wiped out. This is an instance where it appears the self-preservation of the species outweighs the individual rights of women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. But nothing is black and white, and none of this is easy. The President’s decision is purely pragmatic – and was made reluctantly, indicating that the right of choice far outweighed any other right (of the fetus for instance) save the right of society itself to remain intact. But is it really a question of pragmatics? The Presiden’t actions admit, essentially, the potentiality of those fetuses to become people – to repopulate the species. But does that make their lives somehow more valuable than the lives of fetuses in a world richly populated?