Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Right to Pain, Redux 

Well, Terri Schiavo's body is all the rage amongst fashionable Republican vitalists today (see definition below). In February I posted some thoughts on the issue of euthanasia at The American Street, and because it seems even more relevant now, I'm reproducing it here, to supplement the important pieces my blog-siblings have posted below. There is no question that the whole thing has taken on the flavor of a real old-fashioned freak show, so let's join with the bipartisan spirit of political opportunism amuck in the land, and pile on!

freak_show_fat_womanPhysician-assisted suicide has been on the Right's mind since Oregon passed its Death and Dignity Act. Although John Ashcroft was unsuccessful in bringing the state to heel during his reign, the Bush administration is using "activist judges" (that conservative bugaboo) to try again. We will hear the result soon, amidst the usual overheated rhetoric of slippery slopes and miracle recoveries. In the February 2005 edition of Harper's, the Episcopal minister and teacher Garret Keizer has written an article wrestling with problem, and he knows the slippery slope argument is a red herring:
"...we are free to try it (PAS) out. We are free to take a step in that direction and then to rescind or expand the step. We are in fact free to do almost anything we wish--except to avoid the issue or deny the freedom...We can sniff out our otions and pick and choose among them, a birthright generally less appreciated by a dogmatists than by a dog."
But Keizer's is not the voice one hears in the daily media. In a February 5 NYTimes article on the recovering pope (now in archives), Ian Fisher asked:
"Can a suffering, 84-year-old man continue to lead an institution representing a billion people? Pope John Paul II and the people around him say yes, and have, in fact, built an explicit case that his very sickness transmits a series of powerful messages - ones that would seem, for now, to close off the possibility of his retirement.
Those messages range from one of inspiration for the millions around the world now living longer, to a physical expression of his often contentious views on the sanctity of human life, from the womb to the frailties of old age. Abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia are all abominations to him - repudiated by his own public struggle with death.
"What he is saying is that life is worth living until its natural end," one Vatican official said this week during the latest scare over his health. "It is an important witness, and I am sure he is conscious of it - that there is no kind of life which humanly speaking can be terminated because it seems not to be worth living..."
"Christianity exists precisely to give significance to suffering," said Vittorio Messori, an Italian writer who spent time with John Paul during their collaboration on the pope's 1994 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope."
This is the note repeatedly hit by the anti-choice movement: that life per se is intrinsically sacred, no matter what form it takes, and if that life is burdened with agony, it's God's will and must be borne---in fact, must be borne because suffering gives meaning to life and tempers the soul as fire tempers the blade. (Quibbling aside: never mind the long history of convenient dissonance on the value of life: theology being twisted even today into an unrecognizable satire of Christ's teachings in order to inflict upon the world state-mandated executions, the impoverishment of childern, poisoned environmental policies, war upon illegal war, ad nauseum. If these religionists ever actually stood by their trumpeted values, would we not have a society bearing more resemblance to that of the Jains?)

And not only does suffering make Christians closer to God by breaking down the sufferer's stubborn egoism, it also serves to act as a kind of billboard advertising God's love for all. The sufferer, in accepting and living through his or her misery, refusing to opt for the "easy out" of suicide or pain-killing addiction, exemplifies Christ's willingness to endure pain in order to demonstrate God's love. Peggy Noonan, overcome with breathless hyperbole at the sight of the Pope's recent agonies, takes comfort in Michael Novak's channeling of the College of Cardinals:
"John Paul stands for life, for all of life. He wants to honor what the world does not honor.
But why, I said, does God allow this man he must so love to be dragged through the world in pain? He could have taken him years ago. Maybe, said Mr. Novak, God wants to show us how much he loves us, and he is doing it right now by letting the pope show us how much he loves us. Christ couldn't take it anymore during his passion, and yet he kept going."
Of course, the distinction that is lost here is that there is a difference between choosing to endure one's pain, for whatever reason, and being prevented from choosing to end it because someone who doesn't even know who you are thinks you should bear your burden. No one who has ever been in extremis would argue that such challenges can mold one's character for the better. The acts of struggling to find an escape from a seemingly insurmountable morass, or finding a reason to go on in the depths of blackest misery or physical pain, can be life-changing experiences. But those circumstances also break many people who simply haven't the strength or help to cope, or who are confronted by tasks beyond their abilities. And making the choice to control one's death can be one of the greatest life-affirming decisions anyone can make in this world of high tech machinery and sterile, anonymous hospital wards. Those who make broad-brush statements about the value of those difficulties are too often using the miseries of others to vindicate their own views of the world as a place where pleasure, ease, and even happiness are of the devil.

Keizer has a somewhat different take. It's not life that the anti-choice people hold dear; it's pain:
"The right talks about protecting life and tradition, but on some level--the level, let's say, where someone like Dr. Thompson (a physician who helped a terminal patient die) is held up for derision--it is mostly interested in protecting pain. For two reasons... the belief that pain holds the meaning of life...and the belief that pain is fundamental to justice...if justice is conceived as nothing more than a system of punishments and rewards. The essence of punishment is pain. Whoever owns pain owns power.
The suicide, the mystic, the woman who seeks an abortion, the cancer patient who smokes a joint...--all are roundly condemned for their escape from "responsibility", but truly feared for their escape from jurisdiction."
And he points out the innate contradictions often held by the Right regarding the sacredness of life:
"What I find especially interesting is the way in which the cold-blooded calculation that launches an invasion in which thousands of children suffer and die is imaginatively transferred to decisions seldom undertaken without struggle and seldom concluded without remorse."
Meaning that too often those who think nothing of supporting a war of terrible casualties assume that others, faced with slightly different choices of life and death, would take the same easy, thoughtless route. The Right projects its own callous disregard for life onto people struggling to choose the right course, and pronounces them immoral.

The definition of life has been tossed back and forth by the Right and Left for decades in a war to gain the high moral ground, but I think Keizer has identified the key elements for making that definition. He begins by reducing the Right's own defintion as
"...vitalism, which holds that if it's alive, it's a life. No scurrilously rationalist defintion of a human being as an 'upright featherless biped'...was ever so reductive...Man may be a little lower than the angels, but his capacity for pain is reckoned as only a little higher than that of raw meat."
But for him, it becomes more complex:
"The defining quality of human life, as I understand it, is relationship. If there is any idea under the sun that is certifiably 'Judeo-Christian', that is it. To be authentically pro-life means something more than protecting a life or my life. It means cherishing the lives of those who come after me, or who, in the event of a degenerative illness, will need to take care of me: my wife, my kid, my friends, persons whose lives are likely to be shortened by the stresses of prolonging mine."
As extremists on the right codify their way toward the theft of our most intimate and private decisions, we need to begin to have this dialogue.

corrente SBL - New Location
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