Editorial: The Right to Life, the Purported Obligation to Support It
I first came into contact with issues of dying as a “baby buddy” for a few people with AIDS in the 1980s. Actually, I came into contact with it myself when a doctor did a skin biopsy on me in 1983 for possible Kaposi’s Sarcoma (it wasn’t). I was a buddy on my own terms and convenience, and that may dilute some of the experience, so be it. I nevertheless witnessed several situations where terminally ill people had to let go and come to terms with their own mortality. In one case, a person’s buddy had given up his job and income for the buddying experience. Real sacrifice took place, although I did not make that myself.
We often hear “right to life” arguments typical of the culture wars framed in terms of an abstract right of any human being, including the unborn, to biological life under any circumstances and cost. The absolute protection of human life is supposed to demarcate a liberal society, but it will, as we see, lead to some conundrums. These debates occur at the bookends of life, with the unborn and again in “right to die” cases.
I have generally supported Roe v. Wade, with the idea that a woman may choose the fate of her own unborn during the first three months and sometimes during the second trimester. As an abstraction, I see this a genuine contest between purported rights of sexual and bodily privacy of the mother, and the rights of a being who may or may not be “human.” The debate often winds down to where life begins. Actually, the purity of the debate even seems cleared when arguing about stem cell research. Here, we really may be trading the life of one person needing medical treatment with that of another entity which arguably may or may not be human. I agree, for example, that a being should not be created to provide parts for someone else (as has happened in the movies a few times). But what about left-over embryos from the fertilization process? The stem cell debate is complicated by the fact that scientists in South Korea (as of May 2005) could clone human embryos for potential use in making stem cell lines (but also possible abuse in creating new human beings to order).
Truth to tell, the abortion debate is about more than just
the rights of an unborn child. Psychologically, the “right” of a man to
maintain his stake in a pregnancy is also at issue. Furthermore, there is the
fundamental cultural disagreement over the practice of sex without intending
procreation. The “abstinence except for marriage and procreation” paradigm of
religious conservatives is supposed to protect the psychological well-being of
dependent people within the context of the family unit as the principle
instrument of human socialization. Abortion (like homosexuality) challenges
that. The unborn child becomes the archetype of the vulnerable human being who
must be protected from the selfishness of others. Even more vulnerable is the
just-fertilized embryo at conception, the blastula—hence the moral objection of
some even to the “morning after” pill. Pro-life supporters try to conscript or
at least shame others into joining their emotional pleas to protect the lives
of vulnerable unborn, as if anyone who would not join their fight must derive
from the Third Reich. Sometimes protecting life means going to bat for life.
Another religious argument (particularly with the
At the end of life, ultimately there are similar moral
concerns. In the early 1990s, the “right do die” debate sometimes seemed almost
comical with the Jack Kervorkian cases. But European
countries, especially the
I will leave to other commentators the details of debating
the medical, legal, and ethical details (including the conduct of some actors)
of the Theresa Schiavo case in
If one is to make prolonging life of the ill and disabled a priority, this can require sacrifices of others. This goes beyond public policy and payments through publicly funded programs like Medicaid. This can affect the lives and priorities and other opportunities and choices of real individual people who care for them, or may feel compelled to care for them. The debate gets bigger when one considers the ramifications in caring for and providing opportunities for the disabled. Generally, the disabled have many protections in the law now, and these have the capacity to affect smaller businesses and to hire and pay other workers or grow their businesses. It can also provide interesting and unexpected ethical dilemmas in various career areas like health care and especially teaching.
Our love of freedom provides a bit of paradox: we thrive on competition and on the idea of winners and losers (our “winner take all” economy) our blending of individualism with meritocracy. This sounds, on its face, antithetical to the moral obligation to take care of everyone. The only logical resolution is to build an obligation to take care of others into the ethical responsibilities for everyone, married or single, with or without kids. That sounds like something for conservatives and liberals to come together on. Surely, the need to get beyond the platitudes about “the sanctity of marriage” and biological life as a moral abstraction and political opportunity.
©Copyright 2005 by
Jeffrey Rosen, “Supreme Futurology, Roberts v. the Future,” The New York Times Magazine,
In late January 2006 the Supreme Court upheld an
From the President’s Council on Bioethics: "We will need greater ethical reflection on what the young owe the old, what the old owe the young, and what we all owe one another. And we will need prudence in designing effective public policies and in making loving decisions at the bedside, so that we accept the limits of modern medicine and economic resources while never abandoning conscientious and compassionate human care." Is all of this a call for “aesthetic realism,” or for a “pay your dues” society? Gay men, particularly those who felt driven off to create their separate urban societies with, to the mainstream family culture, an emotional focus that seems alien, may indeed find themselves prodigal when faced with an eldercare crisis that reaches the end of the line with them. There is a certain paradox. Technology gives us the ability to keep people alive longer, but technology also gives us purely personal, aesthetic and perhaps narcissistic areas of emotion that allow us to walk away from those who need our caring attention.
The Washington Times printed a LTE the very next day (‘A “loveless
Rob Stein, “’Vegetative’ Woman’s Brain Shows
Surprising Activity: Tests Indicate Awareness, Imagination”, The Washington Post,
entry on embryo screening by disabled couples to deliberately produce
babies with similar disabilities (and AP story by Lindsey Tanner,
Blogspot entry on “Brave New World” designer babies (selection of embryos for implantation from company in Texas)