Saturday, April 14, 2007

Political Beef: Life

I'm not terribly interested in politics, but there are three areas -- life, love, and language -- where I am inspired to speak up because of the sheer stupidity of the prevailing position, and the harm that results as the public is deceived into following it. The very people who need the protection of the current (or, in some instances, previous) laws are often the ones being mobilized to campaign for change. What a hideous irony!

First, the basic issue of LIFE. A few people observed, back in the day of Roe v. Wade, that the landmark Supreme Court decision permitting abortion could become a "slippery slope" eroding the right to life in American law. Well, now those naysayers are proving prophetic. A couple years ago the biggest "life issue" in the public eye was the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who had been kept alive for several years by a feeding tube in her stomach. To put the case in harsh terms, Terri's husband wanted her dead so he could get on with his life. His medical and legal team argued that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state; the lights were on but nobody was home, nor ever would be. Terri's side of the family fought against this, arguing that Terri was still in there, and her life still counted for something.

The courts sided with the husband, and as Terri starved to death the newsmen soberly advised the American people that this was justice. But it was injustice.

Consider the case of an accused murderer. If he happens to get caught and tried in a jurisdiction that has capital punishment, he may get the needle, or the gas chamber, or perhaps the electric chair (do they still have those?). But that only happens if he is convicted by a jury of his peers who can find no reasonable doubt about his guilt, and (in an additional, sentencing phase) who find that the death penalty fits the heinousness of his crime. Even then the convict isn't executed until after every possible appeal has been exhausted, in a system that - though not infallible - shows a considerable bias toward sparing his life if there is any doubt whatsoever about his conviction or sentencing. The burden of proof is on the state and always on the state; the killer only needs to raise a reasonable doubt and he will live.

Compare that to the Schiavo case. Here was a woman who had done nothing heinous, nothing deserving of death. She had committed no crime whatever. Her continued survival was simply an inconvenience to a man who had an absurdly unbending scruple against divorce. Sooner than terminate the marriage, he would terminate his bride. And in the court system that tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed Mrs. Schiavo, the burden of proof lay on her and the family members who wanted to spare her life. She ultimately died because they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was conscious, or that she had any likelihood of recovery.

Note this well: a murderer only gets sentenced to death when the state proves its case against him, and even then years' worth of appeals stand between him and that last, long walk. But an innocent young woman gets tried, sentenced, and executed because the people who value her life cannot prove that she deserves to live. It isn't hard to imagine the next step, when chronically sick and disabled people will have to prove in court that their lives are worthwhile, against HMOs and government number-crunchers who would just as soon not "waste resources" on the treatments that keep them alive.

How much easier will it be, from now on, to take human life under American law? How much harder will it be to muster the proof needed to preserve that life? If a few people saw a slippery slope in the 1970s, surely more people must see that we are already sliding toward a crumbly-edged cliff. The value of a person's life in American law is more seriously threatened than ever before. Voices that claim to speak for legal reform and civil rights are now calling for the legalization of assisted suicide. The next step: suicide may be discussed as a treatment option in all cases of severe illness, and perhaps even urged upon patients who may have a chance of recovery.

The same voices have persuaded several states, including my beloved Missouri, to grant unprecedented (and virtually unrepealable) financial and legal privileges to companies that kill human embryos to harvest stem cells for their medical research--even though the only medical applications for stem cells, so far, have come from adult stem cells that can be harvested without killing anyone. This was done chiefly by circulating propaganda saying that the initiative would ban human cloning, when in fact it actually requires a type of human cloning.

The immediate result has been that when someone asks me to sign a petition to "save our city's parks," for instance, I don't dare sign it. You just can't trust the petition's supporters to tell you what their proposal is really meant to accomplish. They may tell you that it does one thing when, in reality, it does practically the opposite -- and you, by signing it and voting for it, become partly responsible for doing the very thing you wanted to stop being done! But where might the stem cell issue lead farther down the road? Perhaps to people a little further along in development being sacrificed for medical research.

And while the activists continue to wax vocal, and clever, in their support of these changes that erode our right to life, one area where they piously contend for saving life is Death Row. And it is clear, from hearing Catholic and Protestant Christians express their views on capital punishment, that the anti-life activists have done a thorough job of getting people confused about what is right and what is wrong. I personally met the parents of a beautiful young woman whose rape and murder led to the first capital conviction in Missouri since the death penalty was restored; and in spite of their connection with the case, they are opposed to the death penalty!

I do not take this as a healthy sign for the status of individual life in American values and law. It is a sign, at best, of profound moral confusion. Not wanting their daughter's rapist-murderer to receive capital punishment does not arise from the couple's deep convictions about the sanctity of life. In fact, if they believed in the sanctity of human life, they would have told the jury that sentenced their daughter's killer: "Show us that our daughter's life has value. Show us what her life is worth, by taking the life of him who took hers. Don't let this man get away with taking that from her - from us - without paying the ultimate price!"

You have been, and will be, bombarded almost daily with messages about life issues, messages from campaign ads, celebrity statements, political speeches, and from editorial remarks in print, radio, and TV. In the face of such a barrage it would be remarkable if your convictions about the holiness of human life didn't slip or crack or crumble a little, or even a lot. But it is not just one issue. It is the first issue. The individual's right to life, even before the right to privacy, is the first and fundamental right on which all our other civil liberties are built. If that is not kept sacred in American law, when life can be taken from us without the protection of due process, then any other civil liberty can be taken from us that much more easily!

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