Red and blue bioethics

John Leo

3/28/2005 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
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.

Pushing the culture toward outcomes previously considered immoral is routine in bioethics. The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the nation's best religious journal (First Things), wrote, "Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional."

The Schiavo case is a breakthrough for persuading the public to lower the bar on moral constraints. Once we had a bright line between pulling the plug on patients kept alive by life-support systems and killing people like Terri Schiavo who are not on life support but merely being fed through a tube. Requiring clear evidence of consent is no longer required. In the Schiavo case, we have vaguely remembered consent from a party with a vested interest (the husband) some eight years after the patient was stricken. And though the medical and media people seem to agree that Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, there is some doubt that this is so. She has never been given a PET scan, one of the most sophisticated tests used to diagnose PVS, apparently because her husband refused to allow it. The killing of Schiavo is a scandal successfully redefined as unexceptional and therefore moral.