Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Culture of Life Revisited

A while back I reread the Bible in order to research the basis for the “culture of life” that we often hear about from the GOP and the Religious Right. I found little in either the Old or New Testament to support the view that all of life is precious, but concluded that there are alternative ways to arrive at this conclusion, and that the goal is certainly worthy. I also promised to revisit to topic with some concrete points and suggestions, which brings us to this piece.

What recently sparked my thinking is the political circus that has surrounded the case of Terri Schiavo. For those of you who have been out of the country or on a media freeze for the past couple of weeks, Mrs. Schiavo is a Florida woman who has been in a vegetative state for the past 15 years; she has been living on life support with no apparent hope for recovery. A legal battle has been underway between her parents and her husband over whether to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die, and Congress has now stepped in. The GOP has come down strongly on the side of preventing any act of euthanasia, once again invoking their newfound mantra of a “culture of life.” (For an amazing radio program on this issue click here: it includes some priceless quotes.)

So what is the larger lesson here (besides the fact that the GOP no longer seems too keen on states’ rights, and hasn’t for quite some time)?

First off, if you want to take any type of stance in favor of extending people’s lives through the miracles of health care (a noble goal), you by definition must also believe in a significant role for government. Most people can’t afford to do it on their own; it’s that simple. In fact, the majority of the over one trillion dollars each year that we in the U.S. spend on health care is spent keeping the elderly alive. It is an extremely expensive undertaking, requiring the latest in technology and huge amounts of human labor. And moving beyond the simple fact that prolonging life is an expensive business, why stop there? If we really want to promote life we would most certainly want to ensure health care for children, yet tens of millions of them lack even the basics.

Ironically, Bush attempted to slash $15 billion from the Medicaid budget, but was stopped by the Democrats and a few moderate Republicans, and it has been the GOP which has consistently fought against any attempts at universal healthcare or even the relatively modest increases in health insurance proposed by John Kerry in 2004.

The same inconsistency (and what some might call hypocrisy) that plagues the GOP’s stance on health care is also evident in their policy on abortion. More than anything, abortion rates are correlated with economic opportunities: in good economic times abortions go down because people feel they have a greater ability to care for a child. Under Clinton abortions declined dramatically, while under Bush they have again increased. Although Bush inherited a recession that was not his doing (and was exacerbated by 9/11), many of Bush’s policies have worsened the economic status of that segment of the population whose choice of having an abortion is highly sensitive to their income; all of this during a time of record tax cuts and subsidies for the rich.

The bottom line: while the GOP talks a good game about a “culture of life” they don’t walk the walk when it comes to actually laying down the money to back it up, and this is where in reality the greatest “pro-life” gains can be made.

Although much of what I have laid out is largely obvious, what is not is why the Democrats haven’t taken advantage of this huge opportunity to go on the offensive and continually remind the public that talk is cheap. Championing government-provided health care and economic policies that help to decrease income inequality and provide basic opportunities for everyone are the makings of a true “culture of life.”

This is not to say that Republicans don’t have good ideas along these lines or that all the government programs that Democrats support are useful, but on the essential issue of taking an active role to support life, an extreme position against government assistance and some form of income redistribution is simply untenable.

J.S.

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