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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.

These appear different not only because they deal with opposite ends of life's spectrum, but also because they involve very different claims. 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?

At the other end of the spectrum we seem to have almost the opposite argument. Sick and elderly people, it is argued, are full-fledged persons whose rights do matter. These are the very people whose need for treatments (for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, for example) outweighs the merely "potential" interests of the embryo. And because they are persons who deserve respect, goes the argument, their wishes regarding how to end life deserve our respect and even our assistance.

The two issues seem to have little in common. But we need to look more closely.

When being human is not enough

In 1999 the Clinton Administration launched a campaign for federal funding of research requiring destruction of live human embryos. In itself this is not surprising: Unprincipled researchers have long coveted the embryo as a guinea pig for a broad array of experiments, and the Administration has not concealed its disdain for unborn human life.

What is truly startling, however, 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: 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.

A false freedom

What about those sick and elderly people who can no longer be kept active and healthy, even with the help of cells stolen from embryos? If they want to end their suffering through assisted suicide, isn't it respect for their personhood and autonomy that drives our society's efforts to grant them their wish?

Perhaps not. For if autonomy is really the issue, why do we not respect every suicidal person's wish for death? Regardless of health condition or life expectancy, there are always people who wish to die, for reasons that seem compelling to them. Many of these people undergo great suffering -- suffering that is comparable to the pain of terminal illness, may afflict them for a much longer time, and is less amenable to treatment by drugs like morphine. Most of them are clinically depressed -- but then, so are most suicidal people with terminal illness. Why continue to insist on suicide prevention for all these other people, as "right to die" groups do, while offering suicide assistance to the terminally ill?

Faye Girsh, executive director of the Hemlock Society, was once asked this question: Why support assisted suicide only for patients with terminal illness? She answered: Because they really have no lives any more. But that judgment demeans the lives of all these patients, not just the few who may already have suicidal feelings. It is a judgment fiercely denied by elderly and terminally ill citizens themselves, who generally oppose assisted suicide more strongly than others do.

The assisted suicide campaign is not based on autonomy. It is based on a view that some human lives have less value, are less worth protecting, than others. By legalizing assisted suicide for one selected class of vulnerable citizens, society makes its own judgment that some people's suicidal wishes are inherently reasonable and justifiable -- because they have the kind of lives that society sees no reason to defend.

Anyone who doubts this should read the latest book co-authored by Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society. While the book is titled Freedom to Die, that slogan turns out to be ironic. For in one of his last chapters, called "The Unspoken Argument," Humphry reveals that this agenda is really about getting rid of "unproductive" elders who he thinks place too great a strain on our society's resources. "In the final analysis," he says, "economics, not the quest for broadened individual liberties or increased autonomy, will drive assisted suicide to the plateau of acceptable practice." In the future, he predicts, assisted suicide will remain "voluntary" but elderly patients will know what would be "the morally correct thing to do for their family" once they become a burden on others.

Ms. Girsh has already broached the subject of nonvoluntary euthanasia for patients who never requested death, suggesting the need for a "judicial determination" as to "when it is necessary to hasten the death of ... a demented parent, a suffering, severely disabled spouse or a child." And the Hemlock Society continues to hail the Netherlands as a model for humane euthanasia policy-- long after the Dutch government's own study showed that thousands of Dutch citizens have been killed by their doctors without ever requesting death.

This seems contradictory. In a campaign devoted to Aautonomy,@ why has the slide from voluntary to nonvoluntary euthanasia been so effortless? Perhaps because, if you truly think it is autonomy that gives life meaning, you will find no meaning in the lives of people who -- due to age, dementia or disability -- have little autonomy to exercise. The people who are in no position to ask for death become the people you think need it the most.

In this ideology, sick and elderly patients may be members of our common humanity, but what really matters is their inability to live up to the standards for meaningful life that we -- the strong, the intelligent, the healthy -- have defined as the norm. Instead of care, comfort and moral support, they should receive society's encouragement to recognize their own lives as worthless. By ending those lives they will free up more resources for those of us who can make good use of them -- in much the same way that defenseless embryos serve the common good by giving up vital cells and organs that we need for our own health and vitality.

Freedom its own enemy

The Holy Father has spoken of freedom owing a debt to life and truth. "Freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others," he says, "when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth" (EV 19). Similarly, when freedom forgets its roots in absolute respect for the life of every human person, it takes on "a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others" (EV 20).

People may see these as abstractions with little immediate application to the practical world. But his insight is illustrated by the debates on these two issues. In the area of embryo research, the truth about the humanity of the embryo is known, but is set aside to make way for greater freedom for others. In the campaign for assisted suicide, a person's freedom has been turned against his or her own life, ironically paving the way for greater oppression of the weak by the strong.

In both areas, freedom and progress are turned on their heads, so that fellow human beings are stripped of their rights and cast aside as disposable objects.

Paradoxically, a society dedicated to such rootless freedom, to such selfish and elitist progress, "is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part" (EV 20).

An Alternative Vision

What is the alternative to this culture, in which the strong redefine and exploit the lives of the weak to build their new society?

We can begin with a clear-minded recognition of the givenness of human life. We can accept the human condition, and the fact that we are all thrown together in that condition to respect and care for each other. This requires a certain humility, a realization that we are not in control of human life. (That, of course, is the real Copernican revolution: Copernicus showed his contemporaries that they were not at the center of the universe, but were revolving around the sun. We are not gods with the power to determine the meaning of good and evil and personhood for ourselves.)

This is not only a religious believer's insight. In answer to the question, "Whose life is it anyway?", we can answer that a human life is simply not the kind of thing we can own. My life is not just one possession among others -- it is me, in my bodily reality. And if I can be owned, even by myself, I can be bought and sold -- and then I am a mere object. Human life must have inherent dignity, and be treated with the utmost respect, if any human rights are to have meaning.

That is a consistent "natural law" position on respect for life. But as Pope John Paul II reminds us, how much more can we say as people of faith! To us, life is not just a "given" -- it is our first and most basic gift, from a Creator who loves us with an unsurpassable love. What, then, is human life in this vision? It is, in the Holy Father's words, "Aa manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory... in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself" (EV 34).

"Respect" is too grudging a word for the attitude Christians should have toward human life. We have reverence for life, and a sense of awesome responsibility for the precious gift over which we have been given stewardship. We know we will have to give an accounting into eternity for how we have treated that gift.

Harmful theories about life and death can be rebutted with facts and arguments. An entire culture of death can only be defeated by a richer and more compelling culture of love. A culture that rejoices in life, that seeks it out in its most vulnerable and dependent forms so we may provide our care where it is most needed.

A people of life will see into human beings and human situations more clearly and deeply than others do. It will look beyond the undeveloped state of the embryo to see that same membership in the human species that belongs to us all -- but it will look still deeper to that spark of the divine that makes us all one human family under one loving Father. It will look beyond the horrible deeds of the murderer to his or her pain and tortured childhood -- which any secular psychologist can do -- but will look deeper still at the son or daughter for whose sins Jesus died, who is caught in the same mystery of guilt and redemption in which we all live.

In the end, facts and arguments alone will not save us from a culture of death -- though God knows we need those as well. What will save us is love -- a love that is our dim reflection of the infinite love that brought us all into being. As we step forward, with some trepidation, into a new Millennium, our recognition of the divine may be the only force strong enough to rescue the very idea of human worth and human rights. We need nothing less than a Gospel of life.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.



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