Adventures in Seminary: I’d be pro-life, if it weren’t for pro-lifers


I’m a news junkie. Usually I try to vary the sources of my news so as to get as wide a picture as possible. I watch the networks but I also try to read the Washington Post and the New York Times, watch PBS, listen to NPR, watch C-SPAN, read some of my favorite blogs on the right and the left, and of course have the whole experience satirized for me on the Daily Show. This week, as Christians around the world have geared up for the holiest day in the Church calendar, I’ve learned that there is one thing and one thing only going on in the world: Terri Schiavo is dying.

Or maybe she’s not. Or maybe she is. Or maybe her husband is a brave and noble man who has stuck by his ailing wife for 14 years while she has slipped farther and farther away. Or maybe her husband is the Anti-Christ who has fathered two illegitimate children with another woman and is clearly out to see his wife buried and gone. Or maybe Terri is in a vegetative state. Or maybe she isn’t. Or maybe she said clearly, numerous times, to various people, that if she were ever in this situation she would want the plug pulled. Or maybe she never said anything like that to anyone and her maniacal husband made the whole thing up as part of his evil scheme.

Everyone knows the facts by now. Terri Schiavo cannot speak. Her eyes appear to respond to light, but that seems to be all that she is capable of responding to. She cannot feed herself, so she is being kept alive by a feeding tube. Her husband sued to have her feeding tube removed. Her parents counter-sued to have it kept in. The courts all the way up the line in Florida have sided with the husband. This week her feeding tube was finally removed by court order. Congress then unprecedentedly intervened and passed a bill which President Bush signed into law. The sole function of this law was to have Terri Schiavo’s case brought before a federal appeals court judge. The Congressional Republicans figured that surely this new venue would serve to restore Terri’s feeding tube and all would live to battle another day. No such luck. The federal appeals court upheld the ruling in favor of Terri’s husband.

These are the facts. They are repeated on television ad nauseum. And when the TV pundits get tired of repeating them, they bring on folks to spin the case one way or another. For a while they limited themselves to people actually involved in the case, like lawyers and members of the family. Then, when they weren’t enough to fill the twenty-four hour news cycle, the media turned to ethicists, panels of doctors, college professors, and eventually to just about anyone who had some opinion that they wanted to spew across the airwaves. Ultra-conservative blowhard Alan Keyes has made the circuit on television and radio to give his opinion. Celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred has also weighed in. And in the most bizarre moment of coverage to date, Fox News actually interviewed television psychic John Edward of the show _Crossing Over_ about whether Terri is truly aware of her surroundings.

The discussion about Terri Schiavo has been less dramatic at Yale Divinity School, where everyone has been pulled in two directions this past week by the demands of Holy Week and the demands of mid-terms. But there have still been discussions. And, as might be expected, there have been ideological battles.

The lunch table is often where these kinds of discussions go on. The day after Terri’s tube was removed, I sat around the lunch table with Peter, who is a moderate conservative, Michael, who is so far out on the right that he makes Ronald Reagan look like Che Guevera, and Heath, who is a secular humanist Bible scholar who once quipped that Mary was only a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth because of coitus interuptus on the part of the Holy Spirit.

“What day do you want in the pool?” Heath said as I sat down.

“What pool?”

“The pool to guess what day Terri Schiavo finally bites it. I’ve got next Monday.”

“Heath is making t-shirts for the occasion,” Peter added.

As it turned out, both the T-shirts and the pool were a joke, but at the time I would have believed it. Heath is, after all, the guy who set up a fake Internet fan site dedicated to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

Michael, on the other hand, was up in arms about an editorial in the Yale Daily News. The editorial suggested that Congressional Republicans were hypocrites for showing so much interest in Terri Schiavo when they couldn’t muster the same amount of interest for millions of Americans without health care.

“Why would Republicans want to save someone’s life?” Michael said in a mocking tone.

Later, after the others had left, I asked Peter for his opinion. “I don’t care for the way that Congress opted to intervene in this situation,” he said after some thought, “but I find it extremely troubling that in a case where the person’s wishes are unclear, these courts are enforcing decisions that will lead to her death.”

That’s about where I’ve been on the whole thing as well. I think it’s unconscionable the way this family’s private tragedy has been turned into a major news event and a pro-life cause celebre. Congress certainly has no business getting involved. But what are we doing as a society if we take this woman’s life away from her when we are unsure of her wishes? What does that say about who we are?

Yale, being the overwhelmingly liberal place that it is, has few genuine right-to-lifers running around. Yet I do have friends who consider themselves pro-life and I’ve gained a great deal from my conversations with them. While they haven’t directly convinced me of their viewpoint, they’ve pressed me to look at my own stance on life issues. And I have to admit that I find my own inconsistency to be troubling. I’m adamantly against the death penalty. I’m uncomfortable with doctor assisted suicide though I’ve been mostly ambivalent about it. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve also been pro-choice.

In the last two years, being pro-choice has become for me a matter of what is in the best legal interest of reducing and ending elective abortion. I believe there are cases when abortion becomes necessary. If the life of the mother is at stake, if the mother is a victim of rape or incest, or if the child is likely not to be able to live outside the mother’s womb, then abortion may become justifiable. But simply choosing abortion because having a child doesn’t fit into the grand plan — that, to me, seems cruel. Still, I don’t know that outlawing abortion is the best way to eliminate elective abortion. Prior to _Roe v. Wade_, many women received back-alley abortions which damaged their bodies severely, often resulting in death. The best way to reduce something isn’t always to prohibit it.

Some of my pro-life friends tease me. They tell me that I’m trying to have it both ways. They think that I’m really a pro-lifer who just doesn’t want to get thrown out of the pro-choice club. They’re not entirely wrong. One’s stance on abortion has become the defining line in this country between “liberals” and “conservatives.” The fact that I vigorously endorse the rights of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, or the fact that I am a strong proponent of economic and environmental justice, would mean nothing to my fellow progressives if I didn’t also have the NARAL seal of approval.

Plus, why on earth would I want to be associated with the folks in America who call themselves pro-life? I’m comfortable with my pro-life friends, but the groups who represent them on the national scene are downright scary. I don’t want to be associated with Jerry Falwell and his crusade against gay Teletubbies, or with Catholic League President William Donahue who once boldly asserted on national television that “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity” and “like anal sex.” These people are clowns. They stand by idly while some in their movement plot the bombing of clinics and the killing of doctors. They support the death penalty even while they proudly wear the pro-life mantle. They compare abortion with the Holocaust. They even suggest that women who have had abortions should be prosecuted as murderers. And don’t think I haven’t noticed how few actual women there are standing among them.

Still, as I’ve gone through Holy Week this year, my thoughts have returned again and again to Terri Schiavo. As wretched as I find many leaders of the pro-life movement to be, they seem to be the only ones raising ethical questions. And I think the questions are legitimate here.

On Thursday night I preached a sermon about service. It was about how Jesus served all those around him, even the one who would betray him, in the hours before his death. In the final moments, Jesus gave himself up so that we may live. When I think about Terri, I wonder if she’s not giving of herself in a similar way. She is giving her life so that we may know life and how precious it is. The difference is that Jesus had a choice.

Our lives are not defined by how wealthy or how clever or even how nice we are. Our lives are defined by how we treat the least among us.

After church on Good Friday, I drove to the local Stop N Shop to pick up some groceries. It was the first time I’d had any alone time to listen to the radio all week. I turned on NPR and was immediately greeted with a story about how Native American leaders are outraged that President Bush has not made a statement about the school shooting in Minnesota.

“What?” I actually said it out loud. “What school shooting?”

The story was halfway over before I got all the details. Apparently a 16-year-old Native American boy on a reservation in Minnesota went into school on Monday morning and proceeded to shoot the place up, killing nine and wounding seven before finally turning the gun on himself. It was the largest school shooting incident since the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999.

That year, the news media was flush with content about the tragedy, and law makers rushed to try to pass gun control legislation that would prevent more school shootings from happening, an effort that eventually failed. This year, when the shooting occurred on a reservation rather than in a white suburb, the president can’t even be bothered to make a statement. And despite my fetish for up-to-the-minute news, I didn’t even hear about the story until five days after the fact.

Where are the pro-life activists now? Where are William Donahue and Jerry Falwell to give us moral guidance in this time of national tragedy? Where are the talk show pundits to deliver their screeds about the sanctity of life in this situation? Why aren’t the airwaves loaded with pseudo-experts talking about this? Why aren’t Congressional Republicans working through the night to pass emergency gun control legislation so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again? Pro-life indeed.

When I stopped the car, I turned off the radio and prayed.

This country needs to have a conversation about life, how it understands it, why it values it. But that conversation isn’t going to happen until we stop hijacking ourselves with black-and-white rhetoric that splits us all into tightly fenced camps of un-nuanced ideology. Our country has reached into the life of Terri Schiavo and blown her up to such a size that no human being could possibly carry the burden. We’ve asked her to carry the weight of our entire moral confusion. Even if she miraculously came to full awareness tomorrow, she couldn’t possibly fill the role we would have her play.

My fear is that we’re going to see a lot more tragedy before we start to speak honestly with each other, a lot more Terri Schiavos blown up larger than life, a lot more school shootings swept under the rug. My hope is in the mystery of the service that Terri Schiavo’s life and death can become before our eyes. She may die, but through her we may start to learn to live. Every Good Friday is followed by Easter.

Article © 2005 by Jonathan Ratican