President Bush has finally found a sound bite for his social agenda: he wants to “build a culture of life.” This is a revolutionary sound bite. One of the religious right’s biggest political liabilities to date has been its image as a group of tradition-worshipping reactionaries who believe social progress is inherently bad. But by talking about a culture of life and couching their opposition to modern culture in terms of a bold and constructive vision, today’s cultural conservatives avoid the appearance of opposing social progress. It’s not about stopping abortion, stopping euthanasia, or stopping stem-cell research. In the words of the Culture of Life Foundation, it’s about a passionate desire “to promote a universal commitment to protect and nurture all human life from conception until natural death.”
Talk about knowing how to frame the issue. As a social progressive, I respect the Culture of Life Foundation’s position. However, I disagree with it. I disagree in the sense that I agree with Michael Blanding of AlterNet.org, who points out that a real culture of life would champion gun control and universal health care for children. I also disagree with the basic assumption that protecting the life of individual human zygotes is always more important than improving the quality of life for adults.
I submit that it takes a basic quality of life to make a bundle of cells human in the first place. There are activities that set us apart from worms and parsley, like talking with friends, hugging our families, cooking dinner, walking through the park, singing, building a piece of furniture or playing a game of cards. And if people can’t do any of them — whether because they’re too young to have grown more than a few hundred cells or because they’re too diseased to be truly conscious — I question what makes their life sacred. We don’t treat animals with respect — we let them wallow in their own feces in tiny cages before eating them. Why should we treat unconscious humans with respect?
The standard answer from the religious right is that God gives every human a soul, which makes him or her special in God’s eyes, and should make him or her special in all of our eyes. That answer captures some important truths. There are virtually an infinite number of nucleotide combinations, so that humans are genetically unique. There are more dimensions of personality than we can even measure, so everyone’s personality is unique. But is that really relevant? Could Terri Schiavo, and others in a persistent vegetative state, really be said to express their personalities? If I hover at the edge of awareness for 15 years, I would beg God to let my body crumble back into the dust from which He created me. If the only reason to protect human life is that the biological human — a rotting mess of organic molecules — is bound up with a divine soul, then we should let the soul go. God can take better care of it than we can.
I suspect that part of the reason cultural conservatives stick so strongly to their belief in the inviolability of human life is that it lets them avoid feeling personally responsible for the bad consequences of tough choices. A teenager who is discouraged from having an abortion will also be discouraged from finishing school; her child may or may not be permanently adopted and grow up in a home with rudimentary levels of safety and support. If you treat a zygote as potential rather than actual human life, then there’s a trade-off to be made, and there’s some soul-searching to be done. You have to ask yourself exactly how much quality of life should be sacrificed to protect a potential human life, especially in a world that may have already reached the limit of its ecological ability to support us. But if you thump your Bible and insist there’s absolutely no difference between a zygote and an adult, then your choice is clear. Nobody can blame you for “choosing life,” because it’s absurd to consider sacrificing a full-fledged human for the sake of another’s education.
Of course, conservatives don’t really evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions. As the rock band Rush put it, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made your choice.” By supporting a moral system that absolutely prohibits targeted killing, the members of the religious right have indirectly, but nonetheless effectively, condemned to death those who could have been cured through better stem-cell research. There is no targeting, there is no intention to kill, but the victims die just as surely as if they were targeted.
While I respect conservatives’ principled approach, I call on America’s true moral majority — the people with more balanced, subtle views on life — to support a culture of tolerance and understanding. Let’s give each other the space to work out where our priorities lie without being accused of wanting to kill babies or oppress women. Let’s face up to the challenging moral dilemmas of the future instead of hiding behind moral certainties that belong in our past.
Jason Green-Lowe is a junior in Trumbull College.