Above my pay gradeRights Reason & Religion — By Evelyn Baker Lang on March 14, 2009 at 11:52 pm
Yes, the title is a cheap joke. But I’m in the midst of submitting grades for the quarter, maintaining props for a major theatre production, and writing a thesis for my graduate degree, so I’m in need of some frivolity. And I am, as a historian, merely a social scientist, living in a culture that values only hard science.
Mulready asks ‘what is the right to life?’ My concise answer: a lot more than the pro-life movement champions.
I was in DC for the inauguration, and on the day when my students and I were scheduled to meet our local House representative on Capitol Hill, the annual March for Life crowded the National Mall. We arrived just in time for the scheduled concert, and even joined with the various groups marching for the cause of the unborn.
It burdened my heart, however, to see something ugly in that march for what I believe in. The hateful manner of those marching had nothing to do with the cause of life. Yes, abortion is the greatest evil of our generation, and yes, it deserves nothing but contempt. But if we truly care about saving lives, we must change our approach. Hate only breeds hate. Grace is transformative, and only grace toward the opposition will change hearts and minds.
Okay, rhetorical critique aside, the question is: what is the right to life? I have to answer with a quotation from my favorite children’s novel, because it’s in children’s stories we can most clearly see the truth. We lie to ourselves, but not to our children, which is our saving grace.
At the end of Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes puts a critical line into the mouth of Rab, the revolutionary hero wounded in battle who Johnny idolizes. When asked what his sacrifice is for, Rab responds: That a man can stand up. It’s a simple phrase, but it ecompasses great truth.
The right to life must ensure that the weak among us survive. Darwinism was an attempt to explain observed phenomena, not an attempt to define right action for a species’ survival. It cannot guide human action. Of course, I’m presupposing the existence of the soul, but this is a political discussion, not yet a metaphysical one. With that assumption, however, every human life is precious. The unborn, who live but live within the protection of a womb, must be protected and nurtured, whether through natural or artificial means. The weak, the ill, the elderly, must be allowed the best care possible. We cannot lock them away in substandard care facilities, or sequester them from human society due to inconvenience.
But these should not be controversial (and if they are, I’m writing a thesis on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, so don’t give me an opportunity to unleash my research on that slippery slope here!). I think, however, that Mulready and I might not find common ground in my next point.
A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.
Capitalism is a flawed economic system. Our democratic republic falls into the same moral trap. Though some (including my esteemed colleague) might claim that it offers maximum freedom and therefore offers the most opportunity to men to act on their greatest virtues, it also rewards those who trample people on their own path to power. Class warfare aside, what this leads to is a direct violation of the right to life. Let me illustrate my point with a personal story.
My mother’s mother smoked like a chimney. Everyone in her generation did, and she was a model and a local talk show host, so she had an image to maintain. Eventually that led to cancer, as it always seems to do. Grandma Junie didn’t have health insurance (few did at the time). When it became apparent she was in serious medical trouble, she tried to purchase it. The law, on the other hand, in the interest of the free market, allowed health insurance companies to act as they saw fit. They saw fit not in the interest of aiding the sick, but rather in aiding their pocket books. They had the power to deny my grandmother treatment due to her ‘pre-existing condition.’ Before they would insure her, they claimed, she would need to go without treatment for six months. Because she was not independently wealthy, she did.
It killed her. My grandma Junie died of bone cancer, which had matastasized from lung cancer to breast cancer to bone cancer in the six months without treatment. On the day of her death, she sneezed and broke ribs from the force of it. It was painful, degrading, and completely unnecessary.
Did my grandmother kill herself by smoking cigarettes? Without engaging in a debate on the ethics of the tobacco lobby’s advertising, I’ll admit yes, she did. Did that justify this painful, humiliating death? I can’t see how it did.
I realize this is an extremely personal example, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they literally couldn’t argue with me because I had such a personal, emotional connection to it. But isn’t that just avoiding the point? People die because we venerate the free market over human experience. People suffer so we can retain our economic freedom.
This isn’t the right to life. It’s the right to stuff.
The last thing Mulready asked was about the government’s right to take a life. This is hard for me. I have a rather violent personality. An eye for an eye makes a lot of sense to me, and grace seems strange. As a historian, I’m fairly well-acquainted with what evils man is capable of committing. And that leads me to crave violence in response. That’s why I don’t let myself see movies like Taken or Last House on the Left.
Why? Because I know the Gospel is more powerful than my desire for vengeance. It makes no earthly sense to me, but the sacrifice of Alban, whose head was displayed on the battlements of a Roman fort, means more than a father’s brutal vengeance of his daughter’s abuse. I want to cheer on Liam Neeson in Taken, but it is more True to pray for the transformation of the villain. I want catharsis – Christ offers regeneration.
Should the state kill its citizens for the sake of the safety of the rest of them? Pragmatically, yes. But I’ve never been a pragmatist. Killing the enemy doesn’t make anyone truly safe. Transforming him into a friend does. As a Christian, I believe this is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit, but the moment we adminster the lethal injection, or fire the bullet at the terrorist, we end the possibilty that the transformation will ever occur. And, given the fallibility of the state, the idea of denying that possiblity in even one life frightens me.
What is the right to life? It is, first of all, the right to the vital elements that sustain it: food, shelter, air, and the like. But in a bountiful country such as ours, it is also the faciliation of that life. It is its protection economic, environmental, medical and otherwise. It is the encouragement of a system that recongnizes these needs and promotes their exercise.
Yes, that’s vague. Necessarily so. But we must do it, so ‘a man can stand up.’ ‘