On life, death, and ethical standpoints
The Pope is doing somewhat worse today. Terri Schiavo‘s body stopped functioning this morning. These are different people tied together by the same debate regarding the definition of life. This is at the heart of the argument that has been raging for decades now, and while it at times becomes irritating to see the same dead horse beaten over and over again, I am glad that people are free to retain their subjective beliefs on the matter.
Definitions of what life is form the assumptions behind any stance on abortion and euthanasia. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut way to prove that a certain definition of what it means to be alive is correct. Does life begin at a certain point for a fetus? Is brain activity constitute an essential component of life? We want easy answers and definitions, scientific guidelines to follow, a test by a machine that can somehow absolve us of thinking for ourselves. I don’t know that there can be an absolute answer. That is, after all, the starting point for ethical debates: the possibility of multiple good answers and even more bad ones.
Do people who support abortion support murder or the detruction of life? I don’t believe they do in the least, since their stance is not about killing babies but rather about women being able to control their reproductive processes. If a fetus is not considered viable and human, then it is not being murdered.
Are people who oppose abortion irrational? In some cases, yes. But for the average ones, not the fringe lunatics that bomb clinics and kill people, it is their belief that the fetus is indeed alive and human that demands that they advocate life. To do otherwise would be a drastic violation of conscience.
John Paul II has a broad conception of what human beings are, believes that their life is sacred, and does not believe that life should be taken for any reason. The Vatican, under his papacy, has consistently advocated for its understanding of life, in the case of abortion and in euthanasia. Those who disagree with him on the exact issues should at least be able to respect that he has firmly articulated and turned his beliefs in the sanctity of life into action. This is in somewhat marked contrast to George Bush, who pays lip service to the “culture of life” and yet quite clearly does not value life, as evidenced by his foreign policy, if it may be diginified by that term.
What criteria we use to demarcate the boundaries of life determine our stance on many issues and enable paradoxical positions. A person who self-identifies as “pro-life” may support the death penalty; a person who does not believe the fetus is a human may devote her or his life to working with the poor because of their respect for humanity. Anyone who thinks hard enough about justice is going to find that there are some questions that have no clear answers. What is most important is being able to engage in dialogue and rational exchange of ideas rather than simply hating and vilifying anyone who has a different perspective.
Identifying the assumptions that underlie ethical positions is work that many of us are unwilling to do, but I think that if we are to live with respect and tolerance, we must be able to interact on more than the superficial level of reactionary attacks. These solve nothing.
I myself am in favor of abortion being legal and accessible, although having an abortion myself would be an extremely unlikely possibility. Why? For no other reason than that I think people should be treated justly, and I’d be worried that I were harming someone who is possibly as fully human as I.
I have believed that Schiavo died in 1990 and that her body has been kept alive all this time purely through medical intervention, but I also worry that I am being heartless and unjust toward a fellow human.
Next time: Towards better critical theories