Pro-Death Politics

Pro-Death Politics

The country has witnessed an interlude of religious hysteria, encouraged and exploited by political quackery.


I was astounded to read an E.J. Dionne column in the Washington Post about a baby boy in Texas who was denied life support by hospital officials over the objections of his mother–astounded because this act of euthanasia was authorized by a state law passed by then-Governor George W. Bush. Or should we call it “murder,” as some Republicans fervently insist in the death of Terri Schiavo? I wanted to know more about Bush’s role, but the Post never returned to the matter. I wanted to know more about the circumstances surrounding the death of Representative Tom DeLay’s injured father (the doctors pulled the plug on him with the family’s consent).

I also want to know who makes these godlike choices for the Hospital Corporation of America, the 191-hospital chain built by Senator-Doctor Bill Frist’s family. Does HCA follow the end-of-life logic suggested by Bush’s law, or do the hospitals subscribe to Pope John Paul II’s dictum that providing food and water to sustain brain-dead mortals is “morally obligatory”?

These questions sound tasteless and insensitive, I know, but our sensibilities have been jarred by the recent melodrama mounted by the right. The Pope’s death was, by contrast, a model for dying with dignity and proper mourning. The life-or-death issue goes deeper than the obvious hypocrisy of certain politicians. It leads us into intriguing, disturbing questions about what “moral people” believe in this very moralistic country. Shouldn’t we have a fuller discussion about who is pro-life, who is pro-death?

The Catholic Church, for instance, is opposed to the death penalty, though the US bishops have downplayed this conviction until very recently, compared with their political efforts against abortion rights, contraception and other “life-threatening” practices. Their conservative political allies, the evangelical Protestants, find biblical authority for the state’s right to kill certain citizens, yet the Catholic Church finds the opposite. How do these political partners reconcile their moral differences? I don’t wish to provoke religious antagonism, but these questions ought to be asked because the American Catholic bishops and the Protestant Christian right have become a muscular political force for their shared version of “moral values,” asserting their influence at the highest levels.

The Bible says simply, Thou Shalt Not Kill, but various codicils have been added over the millennia by religious thinkers. It’s OK to kill people in war–lots of people–if the circumstances meet the theological test for a “just war.” Pope John Paul II opposed the US invasion of Iraq, called it a “crime against peace” and a conflict that “threatens the fate of humanity.” American bishops warned that Bush’s war did not meet “the strict conditions in Catholic teaching.” We should return to examine their position more closely, because the killing continues in Iraq, including death by torture. If you think about it, Washington’s overwhelming power in the world is founded on death, the awesome arsenal for killing people.

Most people would not regard ecology as a life-or-death issue, but some conservative Christians are beginning to espouse that moral position. The relentless march of industrial despoliation–destroying ecosystems and thousands of species–is the ultimate offense against life since all life forms, including humans, are sustained by nature. Scientists have described these times as an epoch of massive extinction attributable to human activity. Can a moral people do this? Would church leaders explain the mass destruction of God’s creatures as Providence, part of God’s plan? Pro-lifers are, meanwhile, trying to stamp out contraception and stem-cell research.

Here is what I believe: The country has just witnessed an interlude of religious hysteria, encouraged and exploited by political quackery. The political cynicism of Republicans shocked the nation. But even more alarming is the enthusiasm of self-described “pro-life” forces for using the power of the state to impose their obtuse moral distinctions on the rest of us. The Catholic Church and many Protestant evangelicals are acting as partisan political players in a very dangerous manner. Once they have mobilized zealots to their moral causes, they can expect others to fight back in the same blind, intolerant manner.

The Republican right’s religious agenda is no secret. Both the Catholic Church and numerous evangelical churches want to win taxpayer financing for their private schools. The Republican Party supports them. The school-voucher issue has been sold as help for poor children trapped in failing public schools, but the long-term objective is to secure government money to pay the tuition of all students in parochial and private religious schools. Given the strong emotions of recent events, the pro-lifers are advancing an explosive agenda–forcing other Americans (whom they regard as infidels) to pay for the propagation of their “one, true faith.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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