Culture of Life
A Haunting Future Foretold
When Roe v. Wade was handed down a quarter of a century ago, pro-lifers predicted our current struggle against euthanasia and partial-birth abortion
BY John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe
January 11-17, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/11/98 at 2:00 PM
The habit of sin blinds the intellect, declared the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes. Nowhere is the truth of this insight more obvious than in social attitudes toward killing after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Pro-lifers predicted then that abortion would lead to euthanasia and infanticide, and were mocked. Today it's obvious that they were right.
Euthanasia, or killing the elderly and disabled when judged that death would be better than life for them, is a subject of debate throughout the country. The people of Oregon voted to permit the practice two years ago, and despite the arguments presented by Catholics and other opponents, ratified their decision in another ballot—60% to 40%—last November.
What matters far more than the law though, is the actual practice. Veritas est in re, iam non in schemate, wrote Thomas Aquinas: “Truth is in the thing, not in the theory.” The pertinent “thing” here is that Michigan juries have refused to convict Jack Kevorkian, the retired pathologist turned angry doctor-assisted-suicide zealot who has helped people die in his rusty van. His acquittals mean that whatever the law says is irrelevant: professionals who kill their patients will not be punished.
Life's Beginning & End
The arguments about killing the suffering or elderly are more complicated than the arguments about killing preborn babies. With abortion, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” draws a bright line. It is possible—and common—for proponents of abortion to pretend the line is blurry, asking when life begins.
The question is obviously nonsensical though, since everyone uses the same moment—conception—as a point of reference. Instead the debate now centers on how many days after fertilization implantation takes place, how many weeks after fertilization all organs are present, or how many months after fertilization does the developing baby become sentient. The pro-life assertion is simple: the individual's life begins at the beginning, not two weeks or six months later. Anyone who wants to find it can see the bright line.
In sharp contrast, euthanasia debates begin in an area that really is gray. It is wrong to end life, but morally permissible to let death occur naturally. The problem is that some measures are ambiguous, such as the use of pain killers. We are morally required to use “ordinary” means to protect life, but we are not required to use “extraordinary” means. The line between the two is not always clear. Not infrequently, the moral distinctions that matter turn on intent: Is it your intent to bring comfort or to hasten death?
There is a little-noted but devastating carry-over from the abortion debate into the euthanasia debate. In the abortion debate, pro-lifers worked hard to frame their position in secular language, available to everyone in a pluralistic society. Pro-lifers did not ignore the dimension of faith, but did not make it the basis of their arguments.
That approach may have made sense with abortion, but it is crippling with euthanasia. The commitment to secularized argumentation means that everyone quietly accepts the assumption that death is the end of life. When Jack Kevorkian offers to end a client's pain by killing her, there is a flurry of concern about palliative care, and about whether assisting suicides is the proper role for the medical profession. The very practical question, “Does palliative care work?” is left aside because it has religious overtones.
In fact, suicide may not end one's pain at all—it may prolong it forever. There is no logical or experiential basis for the belief that death is a reliable method to end suffering. Who says that death ends your pain? This critical question was never part of the assisted-suicide debate in Oregon, jury deliberations in Michigan, or any public discussion in the nation. Habits formed during the abortion debate leave us hesitant to talk about heaven and hell, salvation or redemption, even at the end of life when these are the most pressing and practical questions.
A Breath Short of Infanticide
Within a year after the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions were announced, the link to infanticide was made. Oct. 4, 1973, an abortionist in Boston committed an act of murder, but whether it was an abortion or infanticide was debatable.
Kenneth Edelin attempted to abort a pre-born child, 24 weeks old, by saline poisoning. That failed, so he cut open the mother's uterus and removed the child, who died at some point in the process. He was tried in 1975 for manslaughter and convicted, but the verdict was later reversed.
The question before the court was not whether Edelin killed a large pre-born child, or whether he had done it deliberately—he admitted that. The question was whether the child took a breath before dying. If the child died without taking a breath, then Edelin's act was abortion, and under the 1973 decisions he could not be prosecuted. If the child gulped air before dying, the act was infanticide, and he could be convicted of a crime.
This line between the “service” of abortion and the crime of infanticide is measurable, and can be maintained. But what sensible person can defend the distinction as morally significant?
The abortion establishment did not run for cover during the episode, or claim that Edelin's act was an exception. Instead, Edelin was honored by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), which made him chairman of their medical advisory committee. He later became chairman of the board for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
The debates of the past three years regarding a procedure called “partial-birth abortion” bring us back to 1973. If a child's legs and torso and arms are outside the mother's body, but the head is still inside, when the abortionist reaches inside, cuts open the back of the child's head and empties it, and then removes the deflated skull, is that abortion or infanticide? How can anyone argue that killing the child before fully delivering it makes the procedure acceptable? It's like justifying cannibalism by introducing forks.
The nation was shocked when a teenager gave birth in a rest room during her prom, discarded the baby, and then returned to the dance. It was horrifying. Perhaps she just failed to see the moral distinctions between discarding a baby moments before birth or moments after. To be fair to her, Nobel Prize winners have also failed to understand the distinctions.
One of Dostoyevski's characters asserted that if there is no God, then everything is acceptable. The same is true of a decision to kill children. The intellect is blinded, and we can't see clearly until we've repented of our sins.
John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, a veteran pro-life researcher, author, and lecturer, is the director of public policy for American Life League.
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