A Matter of Life and Death
In their apparent quest to achieve a state of perfect irony, the Republicans have produced a mountain of laughably inauthentic policies and statements, like the “Clear Skies Initiative,” the ‘Healthy Forest Initiative,” “No Child Left Behind,” the “Patriot Act,” and "protection of marriage". But none is more central to their party identity or more questionable than their claim to be pro-life.
As you all know, “pro-life” is short for anti-abortion, which the Republicans certainly are, and they have for a long time made a lot of political gravy out of this. They’ve used this hot-button issue to drag a lot of people into their party, even when contrary to their own economic interests. This is the same view that compels Republicans to stand against the use of stem cells in research and that caused an extended session of congress to try to prevent the death of Terry Schiavo.
But the labeling of Republicans as “pro-life” has perplexed me, because to my eye they are far more pro-death than pro-life. Republicans of course, overwhelmingly support the use of the death penalty, despite knowledge that it has no suppressing effect on crime. And it’s Republicans who have consistently been the most belligerent in foreign policy, and who still most support the war in Iraq that has resulted in the deaths of perhaps 100,000 Iraqis.
It’s Republicans who oppose HPV inoculation, even though we know HPV causes cancer. It’s Republicans who oppose sex education, even though we know it saves lives by informing kids about condom use and disease prevention. It’s Republicans who want to prevent people from giving water to Mexican illegal immigrants who may be dying in the desert.
And it’s Republicans who support deregulation of industry and diminishing the number and power of watchdogs on big business, which necessarily leads to greater pollution, less safety, and less care. And at the same time, they support the limiting of penalties when businesses do get caught harming others (this is called “tort reform”). They also oppose universal health care.
Ah, yes: the culture of life. This seems to amount to political mobilization against abortion and against pulling the plug. So, Republicans are for the “life” of human fetuses and the “life” of human vegetables, and not much else.
Now, I respect the idea of a culture of life. If someone really felt that human life itself is the greatest good, then I could understand their anti-abortion and pro-vegetable stance. Even maybe their squeamishness about stem cell research. These are all colorably a taking of life. But since these pro-lifers are so often also pro-deathers, their credibility is shot, in my eyes.
Everybody agrees “life” is a good thing. It’s all really a balancing issue, really. What would you exchange lives for? Wars for freedom from tyranny? A highway transportation system? Fireworks? Each of these claims lives, but we do them anyway because the benefit presumably outweighs the costs. Even while supporting abortion rights, most pro-choice liberals are unhappy with the extinguishment of potential life that is an abortion. However, liberals weigh this against factors that are extremely important to them. They find that this risk of harming life is outweighed by the protection from the back alley coat-hanger afforded by legalized abortion; the potential of saving girls from parenting burdens they are unprepared for (and will probably be forced to bear alone and without state aid); and more generally, for the emancipation of women as a whole from sexual oppression and repression that results from fear of pregnancy. This is perhaps not entirely a culture of life either (though they clearly have more a claim to such a title than the Republicans), but perhaps rather a culture of liberation.
Republicans are by no means less willing to forfeit lives for principles. Republicans seem to believe that when you are morally impeachable, you deserve whatever harm you receive, including sickness, rape, and death. They have no problem with forced suffering as a punishment for immorality (in their judgment, of course). If you’re a criminal, a homosexual, an illegal immigrant, a citizen under an unfriendly regime, or a fornicator of any kind, any punishment is just.
My view is that the only way to explain the party line on issues of life and death is that Republicans and their ardent supporters are in fact a culture of retribution. It’s that Old Testament crap they’ve taken to heart. You know, there’s a lot of retribution in the Bible. People get punished for worshipping foreign Gods, for looking at one’s father nude, for having the wrong kind of sex, for creating graven images, for looking back on the destruction of an evil city, and in Job’s case, for nothing much at all (though not as often for murder, war, incest, slavery, bigamy, or fraud). Entire cities and peoples were punished with destruction and death for the behavior of a few. If you’re not careful, you could get the idea that punishment is a good in itself. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” after all. The point is, that for religious Republicans, this issue of the punishment of miscreants outweighs their inclinations to support life. I’m convinced for this reason, they are typically anti-abortion not because of the life they may save (which they will ignore once it is born unless, in its 90s, it goes on life support), but because having and caring for a baby is the just deserts for a young slut who was sleeping around out of wedlock. They do not want her to avoid her just retribution.
There is no “pro-life” party: it’s another euphemism that historians will chuckle at. All these issues of “life” come down to the relative values of liberation on one side and retribution (for liberation) on the other. The basic struggle between Liberal and Conservative philosophy played out in flesh.