A regrettable limit on life
Think of the Terri Schiavo case as another red-versus-blue issue. Congress, Republican-dominated and therefore mostly red, asked the federal courts to take a fresh look. The federal judiciary, in its customary imperial blue, contemptuously told Congress to take a hike. It wouldn't delay the execution for even a few days. For that, you need to be a convicted cop killer.
Color the mainstream media blue. Photos of pro-lifers usually show people who seem to be unbalanced, waving Bibles, rolling their eyes crazily--right out of the playbook for antiabortion coverage. The nearly identical headlines in several papers saying, "How the Personal Became the Political," reflect a media consensus that the antideath side is intruding where it doesn't belong. The verb placate is overused to indicate that this is just politics and Republicans are humoring those zany evangelicals. ABC and CBS are under fire from red bloggers for conducting what critics consider "push polls," i.e., public-opinion surveys constructed to achieve the correct pro-death result. Disability-rights activists are an important constituency defending Schiavo's right to live, but since journalists cannot afford to depict them as unbalanced or foolish, they have been rendered almost invisible.
The underlying red-blue issue involves the current state of bioethics. Many of the founders of this relatively new field were religiously motivated. Daniel Callahan, a former colleague of mine at the Catholic magazine Commonweal, cofounded the Hastings Center. Sargent Shriver and the Kennedy family launched the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. But the bioethics world turned rigorously secular and veered sharply to the blue section of the color spectrum. A key factor in the rise of bioethics, Callahan wrote, was the "emergence ideologically of a form of bioethics that dovetailed nicely with the reigning political liberalism of the educated classes in America." Instead of the traditional emphasis on the sanctity of life, bioethics began to stress the quality of life, meaning that many damaged humans, young and old, don't qualify for personhood because their lives have lost value. The nonpersons should be allowed to die and in some cases be killed. This explains why so few bioethicists have protested what the state and her husband planned for Terri Schiavo, who is severely damaged, but not in pain or dying, not brain dead, and in no position to protest her own execution on grounds that other people consider it best for her.
Bioethics has hardened into an activist ideology that pervades the medical world, the schools, and government. This explains why Leon Kass, a moderate conservative who heads the president's committee on bioethics, is under such fierce attack and why Princeton University picked Peter Singer as its first scholar in bioethics. Singer thinks parents should be able to kill disabled newborns.
Among bioethicists, Kass says, "there is a kind of condescension toward the views of the general public [and] a very real danger that what constitutes meaningful life among the intellectual elite will be imposed on people as the only standard by which the value of human life is measured." Under pressure from bioethicists, norms have been collapsing. Fifteen years ago, as author Wesley Smith writes in his 2002 book The Culture of Death, legally assisted suicide was unthinkable. So was harvesting the organs of terminally ill patients, which is done today and approved by bioethicists.