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?[1] 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 Vatican) is that openness to having more children (regardless of the risks or costs) is an important way to reinforce the intrinsic value of human life.


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 Netherlands, began to articulate the notion that it is all right to end life in the most hopeless cases. In American law, it is generally necessary to support the life (with medical treatment and nutrition) of anyone who seems capable of consciousness, no matter how hopeless the eventual odds (which used to be the case with HIV). There is real debate about what should happen when a person is “brain dead” and permanently unconscious. The recent interest in the media and the general public in Living Wills to communicate contingent wishes seems entirely appropriate.


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 Florida. I am struck, however, by the apparent emotional commitment of her parents and siblings to care for her as long as necessary. It’s one thing to be supportive generally; it’s another to show real emotion and feeling. And this brings me to another point.


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 Bill Boushka

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Jeffrey Rosen, “Supreme Futurology, Roberts v. the Future,” The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 28, 2005, discusses a number of liberty interests that make come up this century on the Supreme Court (in the light of the John G. Roberts, Jr. appointment by President Bush). Rosen has a lengthy discussion, “Genetic screening and the future of personal autonomy,” with contexts like cloning, stem cell research, and same-sex couple “sexual reproduction.”


In late January 2006 the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law allowing physician assisted suicide when a patient has less than six months to live. Suzanne Fields weighs in on this with a cutting op-ed , “When Society Celebrates Suicide: Must technology tell us what it means to be human,” The Washington Times, Jan. 23, 2006, at http://www.washingtontimes.com/op-ed/20060122-111620-9440r.htm   Some cutting quotes: “… reality becomes virtual and technology drivers our sensibilities.” … “Children who grow up with closer relationships to a screen or a cell phone have a very disturbing idea of what it means to be emotionally caring for another person. The Greeks thought it important to ‘know thyself,” … but we may have to expand that to ‘know others’ to develop lasting human bonds…. A lingering illness makes it easier for an adult child to become callous in the face of an elder’s suffering. We value independence of body and mind, but in old age interdependence is crucial.

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 society”?’) (Tuesday Jan 24 2006) from Jonathan Imbody, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Christian Medical Association, in which the treatment of the terminally ill in The Netherlands is criticized. The notion of a person’s “productivity” (as a considerationin how long he or she should live in a society that allows “assisted suicide”) is mentioned.  http://www.washingtontimes.com/op-ed/ed-letters.htm


 Rob Stein, “’Vegetative’ Woman’s Brain Shows Surprising Activity: Tests Indicate Awareness, Imagination”, The Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2006, p A1, does add some complexity to the post script of the Schiavo case.


Blogspot entry on embryo screening by disabled couples to deliberately produce babies with similar disabilities (and AP story by Lindsey Tanner, Dec 28 2006)


Blogspot entry on “Brave New World” designer babies (selection of embryos for implantation from company in Texas)








[1] Here is a good writeup: “Stem Cell Research: All Sides to the Dispute” http://www.religioustolerance.org/res_stem.htm