Life Before Death

Let our society truly choose life, with all its competing moral claims and obligations to minister to the weakest among us.

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One can make a moral case against all forms of euthanasia, but to do so responsibly requires a commitment to underwrite the massive costs such a position must entail. As for all the pious political expostulation against starvation, cutting back on food stamps here at home or slicing foreign aid to abate famine abroad rips out untold numbers of feeding tubes. Children daily die in Africa by the hundreds, by the thousands, without fanfare--children not in a vegetative state, who might otherwise have lived a full and active life. While ignoring or rejecting so many other humanitarian pleas, when our legislators take time off from cutting the human services budget to promote a feeding law designed to address the plight of a single human being, they turn President Bush's "culture of life" mantra into a parody.

The Terri Schiavo controversy has led to at least one positive outcome. Over the past week, several of you I know (and perhaps many of you) have emended your living wills explicitly to include feeding tubes in the category of artificial life supports you ask not be employed to prolong your life beyond its natural term. Carolyn and I have done the same. We would readily choose death over 15 years of vegetative or semi-vegetative life supported by tubes. Death is not a curse to be outwitted no matter the cost. Death is the natural hinge upon which life turns, without which life as we know it could not be. A pro-life support position is not always a pro-life position. When we can no longer hold on with hope or purpose, to let go for dear life is to die with dignity and grace.


It goes without saying that the pro-life rubric provides the religious right with a powerful rhetorical symbol. The word "life" encompasses a far more resonant standard for moral action than does the word "choice." And yet, in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses tells God's people, "Choose Life," life and choice are yoked together in a single redemptive dynamic. Without choice, life, especially moral life, is diminished to almost nothing. Without choice there can be no moral agency. Moral capacity is based entirely on the ability to choose, even to choose life.

By definition, a life-affirming ethic requires hard choices among competing moral ideals. For instance, the social cost of banning all forms of euthanasia--considered a mortal sin by the religious right--will be offset elsewhere, at the expense of pre-natal care or of preventative medicine. Some proportion of healthy people will get mortally ill in exchange for keeping a smaller number of critically ill people barely alive. To choose life, embracing the fullness of God's call, we must be morally mature enough to admit the necessity of triage. Otherwise, on the altar of our piety we may lavish care on those who can't significantly be helped, while others, whose lives might be saved at far less cost languish in the nation's expanding waiting room.

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Forrest Church
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