Terri Schiavo’s impending death should give each of us pause no matter where we come down on the issue of her continued access to food. That I am on the side of life for Terri will come as no to surprise to those of you familiar with me. That I am mortified by the desecration of the rule of law by those who in a general sense agree with me will be probably less surprising to you still.
In a New York Times op-ed today, Charles Fried characterized the superficial problem well when he expressed dismay at the Republican’s situational contempt for the rule of law in light of their traditional patronage of that worthy cause. Whether the Republicans ever had a drop of sincerity in their support for the rule of law is hard to say, but it should be clear now that their purported high regard of America as a nation of laws is ultimately subservient to their political agenda. Unfortunately, a lack of fidelity to one’s stated High Ideals is nothing new for our political class regardless of which side of the isle on which they stand.
I seldom get more nauseous than when a Democrat or Republican is accusing other politicians of hypocrisy thereby achieving the epistemological marvel of hypocritical hypocrisy.
But my nausea today stems more from a profound discouragement that we as a society will ever be able to tackle complex ethical problems in a useful manner. We have become so dysfunctional that as a nation that we are not only unamazed at the politicization of a politically neutral moral issue, but we also unrepentantly accept this state of affairs as the norm. Our continuing voluntary acquiescence to content free dialog has brought us to this point where it is highly probable that we will come through the long and arduous “discussion” concerning Terri Schiavo and arrive at the other side with no more understanding or consensus than when we first considered the issues.
While I share the distress of many Americans over the need to find a socially useful definition of life, my greater terror comes from recognizing that the issues presented by the Schiavo case are of great simplicity when compared to profound bioethical questions that lie just over the horizon of popular consciousness. A society that cannot corporately determine that which is Life when dealing with familiar things such as the human genome will surely be dashed to philosophical pieces by the radical technologies which will explode upon us long before this writer reaches his actuarial expectation of the hereafter.
And make no mistake about it, what lays ahead is perhaps more daunting than what any of us can imagine. Will the mice with quasi-human brains that they claim are presently not allowed to fully develop be deemed worthy of any kind of human rights protection? What are we to do with other chimeras yet to be born? And fasten your seat-belts bio-sports fans because mere genetic tinkering of this kind is child’s play compared to efforts to use the building blocks of life to create fundamentally new biologies.
Hyperbole is scarcely even possible in these matters.
What is happening due to our collective inability to intelligently arrive at a conclusion on any issue that presents an ethical conflict is that we are abandoning some of our most important decisions to the political elite. Being dependable politicians, they of course pursue political advantage rather than leading constructive ethical debate. It is the ultimate in naiveté to be shocked by this.
The real shock is that we are missing here a great opportunity to set the law on the reasonable path of a presumption for the continuation of life. Certainly other positions are possible and should be discussed, but it seems likely that most Americans would favor a presumption of life in the absence of a prior clear expression to the contrary by the one who is no longer able to speak for themselves. Instead, we ogle the facts before us, stamp our feet in righteous anger and carefully avoid the uniquely American heresy of substantive dialog.
The politicians will have the last “laugh”, I suppose, because when the petition for injunctive relief to support the human rights of something akin to a pig-human chimera that can be shown to possess a brain with a human structure and chemistry, America will habitually turn to them to be told what to think. And what we must think will then of course depend on the red-blue topography of the upcoming election.
When bioethics questions come up, I often think about the line uttered by the Jeff Goldblum character from the movie Jurassic Park where he admonishes that “life will find a way”. As we set a course for tinkering with life in ways grander still than even what was depicted in that movie, it is a frightening thing to know that we proceed not only without a navigator, but without a rudder as well.