Of course the pro-life movement is not pro-life!
The term ‘pro-life’ is a euphemism for religious oppression. The catholic church is at the centre of the “pro-life” movement, but it is not alone in taking a supposedly pro-life stance. Evangelical Christians, fundamentalists of most religions, Muslims and others are also “pro-life” in this euphemistic sense. There are some atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, who are also anti-abortion, and a few, like Nat Hentoff, who are opposed to assisted dying, but their number is few and the ground on which they stand is shaky. Wikipedia’s entry under ”Pro-Life” includes one reference — in the footnotes — to the Athiest and Agnostic Pro-Life League, but its numbers are small, and, having read a few of the “articles” in its Library section, the reasons they give are weak, and are almost word for word a mirror image of the arguments of the religious, whose culture they share.
Hitchens, however, is a prominent non-believer, and presumably he has had some impact. To some extent what Hitchens succeeds in doing, I think, is to confuse the issue. Here is a brief video where he expresses his views regarding abortion:
However, even though we might agree with Hitchens, here, that the issue of viability is important in determining when an ordinary abortion may or may not take place, he surely is not claiming that, at that point, a human person exists whose right to life is equal to that of the woman who would be its mother should it be born. If he is claiming this, then I think he would meet with a great deal of opposition from those who feel (rightly in my view) that the woman’s life is primary. She is a person who already has a life of values and purposes and plans, the kind of thing that a foetus is not capable of having until some period of time following birth. In law, life is taken to begin at the point when the baby is completely extruded from the body of the mother, and is no longer dependent on the mother for sustenance. The value of her life trumps that of her foetus.
The diminished capacity of the infant for what might be called “narrative life” is the reason why, in law, the killing of an infant by its mother has not been taken as seriously in common law, as the murder of an adult. According to Glanville Williams (The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law):
Infanticide appears to our generation to be a crime less heinous than ordinary murder. Even if there is no social justification for the act, the killing of babies who are not old enough to experience fear is different from the murder of adults. 
The other point is that infanticide by the mother may indeed by the outcome postpartum depression. In any event, the diminished value of newborns, or something like it, is the ground on which the contemporary justification for letting severely ill newborns die is based, though there are very few jurisdictions where, in cases where letting die is thought to be appropriate, more positive acts of euthanasia are also accepted as legitimate. This is clearly an area which is in need of clarification, and, possibly, of change.
This is not something that is within the particular remit of this weblog, since I am more concerned with death that involves adult human beings or legally competent minors who have reached a point in their lives where death seems preferable to continuing to remain alive, and where the choice would be made, if available, to receive assistance to die under carefully defined circumstances.
I thought it important, however, to begin by pointing out that support for either abortion or assistance in dying is not unanimous amongst unbelievers. Of course, opposition to abortion and assistance in dying is not unanimous amongst believers either; but support for assisted dying, abortion and reproductive choice for women is much more common, and more nearly universal, I believe, amongst unbelievers. I do not know any statistical studies that have been done in this area, so if readers know of any, I would appreciate the information.
The “pro-life” stand, in both the case of abortion and that of assisted dying, is based almost entirely on religious grounds, with a few exceptions as noted. But the real issue here is not a question of pro- or anti-life, but whether the best interests of the living are at the forefront of moral concern. It seems obvious, considering cases like that of Baby Joseph, or Terry Schiavo, or the case in Phoenix where saving the life of the woman by providing abortion services instead of letting her die got the hospital stricken from the list of catholic hospitals, that the interests of the living are not really at the forefront of religious concern.
As the Phoenix case makes painfully clear, what is of greatest importance, from the standpoint of the church, is maintaining control over individuals and institutions so that the church’s stand, however morally repugnant, is honoured. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a declaration in response to the Phoenix case in which they support Bishop Olmstead’s position that (in the words of John Paul II):
… these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.
In other words, the woman should have been left to die, even though, in the event, it is almost certain that both the woman and the unborn foetus would have died. And notice that, in the case of Baby Joseph, no matter how hugged his father might feel by the catholic hospital in the United States, the overwhelming consensus by at least 8 doctors in London, Ontario, was that he suffered from an irreversible degenerative brain disorder, and that all that could be preserved was merely the prolongation of suffering, not of life that would have been of any value to the baby himself.
Prolonging suffering is not being “pro-life,” no matter how many people are duped by catholic mythology about the infinite value of every breath that is taken. What this does, however, is to maintain the mystique of the priesthood and the doctrines of the church, which continue to cocoon the dying in a web of what amounts to a kind of religious hysteria. Father Pavone, despite the ridiculously inflated language of “covert rescue”, did not really “rescue” anyone. The baby is dying — and he’s still dying – and all that Pavone has done is to make sure that the baby will take a few more tormented breaths. What purpose is being served by this? Why, obviously, Pavone and his ghouls are using this baby as a headline grabber for consumption by all those who are being tragically misled by religious hyperbole about the dogma of the value of so-called “innocent life.” Take a look at the Priests for Life website. There is nothing there that values human life. What it exemplifies is religious emotionalism, pure and simple. It is designed to arouse religious passions, not to provide care. One of the headlines reads:
Stop putting a price tag on human life.
Nearby is a blurb about a prayer of remembrance for Terry Schiavo, the brain-dead Florida woman whose life-support was terminated in 2005, and these are the words that accompany the blurb:
On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo died after being deliberately dehydrated, with the consent of the courts. Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life was at her side and presented the truth about her death, and about the value of her life, to the national and international media
Pavone ”presented the truth about her death.” What truth? That she was brain-dead, and no longer had a life that was of any value to her, since there was no person there any longer to value it? Or, simply that there was a breathing body on the bed?
In order to play this theological game, it is necessary to make very fine distinctions. What usually comes into play at this point is the so-called Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), first clearly enunciated by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. According to the DDE, what really matters is intention. If you intend to do one thing, and another (harmful) thing is an unintended outcome, then, so long as what you intend to do is a good that outweighs the bad, then the badness of the unintended outcome can be ignored. So, if your intention is to relieve pain, and the drug used to relieve pain has the unintended side-effect of hastening death, the use of the drug would be justified, notwithstanding the unintended harm (death) that was caused by its use.
The doctors at the hospital in London had obtained a court order which would have allowed them to remove Baby Joseph from the ventilator. Alex Schadenberg, over at his blog, claims that removing life support from Baby Joseph would not have been a case of euthanasia. Here is what he says:
Some people have suggested that to withdraw the ventilator from baby Joseph would constitute an act of euthanasia.
Euthanasia is an action or omission of an act that directly and intentionally causes the death of another person with the intention of relieving suffering. Euthanasia is a form of homicide.
For Alex Schadenberg it is important to be able to make this distinction, because he is opposed to euthanasia. But it is not at all clear that the distinction between intentional and unintentional outcomes is as obvious as he would like it to be. In this case, the intention of the removal of the ventilator was almost certainly to allow the baby to die. Schadenberg, of course, needs to deny this, since the courts said that the hospital would have been justified in removing the ventilator, and since, as he says, euthanasia is homicide, he cannot admit that removing the ventilator would have been euthanasia. Nevertheless, it would have been euthanasia, because it was known that the ventilator was necessary in order to keep the baby alive.
The truth is that the Doctrine of Double Effect itself is widely believed not to be sustainable in many cases having to do with the terminally ill. To remove life support from a dying person may be to accede to the wishes of the patient, and acceding to the patient’s wishes may be the primary intention, but it is clearly, also, a primary causative factor in the death of the person. And where the patient cannot have wishes — as in Baby Joseph’s case — the link between removing life support and death is even more obvious. Just saying, as Schadenberg does, that the baby might have lived, despite removal of life support, really doesn’t do the trick.
I will look at the Doctrine of Double Effect in a later post, since it is crucial to the “pro-life” stance. In the case of Baby Joseph, however, it is clear that removing the ventilator would have been equivalent to a choice to let the baby die. This would have been best for all concerned, but especially for the baby. In what way is keeping a dying baby alive for a few more hours or days an affirmation of life? Clearly, there is a serious misunderstanding here about how and why we value life. This will deserve a closer look in a later post.