Monday, April 04, 2005


Lip Service

In last Friday’s moving editorial on Terri Schiavo’s death, the NY Times glossed over a complex set of issues with this polite bow to the religious right:
[S]ome people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the conclusion that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die.
I don’t blame the editorial writers for settling for that particular half-truth, since an editorial can’t pursue every tangent. But loose references to “deeply held religious convictions” give too much credit to too many people in the Schiavo case, and I’d hate to see that become some sort of mantra in discussing public policy questions in which the religious right takes a strong position.

The idea of “strong religious beliefs” covers a multitude of sins in contemporary American public policy debates. Because religious beliefs are not grounded in scientific rationalism, it’s only natural that supposedly “faith based” policy arguments have a non-rational starting point. But it’s sloppy thinking to go from acknowledging religious advocates' policy arguments that are non-rational to excusing "faith based" arguments that are illogical, inconsistent or hypocritical.

For example, many faith-based advocates who opposed removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube indulged in the rhetorical ploy of claiming that she was being “starved to death.” While that may have been literally and medically true, it disingenuously mushes together different objections that don’t hang together.

The “starved to death” argument derives rhetorical force from the implication that removing the feeding tube may have caused Terri severe and unnecessary pain and is therefore cruel. Wholly apart from the likelihood that palliative care could largely reduce the pain, the fact is that many of these self-same “sanctity of life” advocates would have opposed the use of medications to end Terri's suffering more quickly, and they have in fact opposed Death with Dignity laws that would allow terminally ill, suffering patients to end their lives. Indeed, the Bush Administration has been trying to shut down Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act since 2001. That issue is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzalez v. Oregon.

Further, in focusing their outrage on the courts in this case, the hard core religious right seemed to be trying to widen its base of support by suggesting that Terri’s Schiavo’s feeding tube was going to be removed as the result of a flawed legal process. That too is an opportunistic distortion. The ultimate question in the legal proceedings involved a dispute about whether Terri would have wanted to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state by means of intrusive life support procedures. But the religious right had no interest in honoring Terri Schiavo’s wishes per se. If in fact Terri's wishes ran against the religious right objectors' own views on death and dying -- categorical opposition to the cessation of any medical procedure that would prolong life -- they would have advocated disregarding Terri's wishes. Thus, the objection to the legal process is not that is was unfair, but that it reached a result contrary to their wishes.

Finally, do we have to accept as an article of faith that every position vociferously asserted by an organization purporting “faith based” ideals is indeed a “deeply held religious conviction”? To begin with, there is a marked tendency in our public debate to confuse so-called "family values" with "religious conviction." While there may be considerable overlap between the two, the desire of family values advocates to have the state control everyone else's family decisions may have as much to do with a misplaced desire to control one's own children (a desire that spills over into the public policy arena) as with any set of theological principles.

Related to this, strong emotions like rage and fear seem to be at work in many public policy debates in which one side drapes itself in the mantle of religion. One of the things religion does for people is to help control such deleterious emotions as rage and fear. There’s certainly a place for that in any society, but what makes me uncomfortable is the idea that rage and fear are perhaps being channeled by opportunistic political and even religious leaders toward some hidden public policy agenda. And if that’s what is going on, I don’t want to sugar coat it by calling it “deeply held religious conviction.”


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