Last week, America watched transfixed as the lives of two people came to end: Pope John Paul II and Terri Schiavo.
Their lives could hardly have been more different. He spent the past 27 years leading the world’s billion Catholics. She spent the past 15 years lying in a hospital bed in a persistent vegetative state. She was a shy bulimic, until recently known mainly to her family. He was a world historical figure who helped bring communism to its knees. Yet we all watched, discussed and debated as they both died.
How could two such different people command the attention of the nation?
The answer, I think, lies in our shared appreciation of the gift of life. Whether we believe life is precious because we are created in the image of God or because we are the product of a highly improbable combination of random events, we share a belief that every human being is of unique and infinite value. We all recognize that with the end of every life something irreplaceable passes from this world.
Nevertheless, we disagree about when life begins and when it ends. The pope believed life begins at conception. My own tradition teaches that it begins at birth. Some believe that life ends when the brain stops functioning completely. Indeed that became a legal definition of death in the United States beginning in 1980.
Inaccurate commentary notwithstanding, Terri Schiavo was not brain dead in this sense. She had lost her cognitive and conscious function, a condition some now accept as death.
Passions become inflamed when we debate the beginning or the end of life. But somehow we tend to lose our enthusiasm for the period when everyone acknowledges people are alive.
Politicians truly committed to celebrating life could not abide 18,000 premature deaths each year in the United States because some Americans lack health insurance. They could not rest while a billion people in the world have no access to healthcare at all. Those truly committed to life could not contemplate cutting Medicaid to provide tax cuts to anyone.
Leaders who respect the uniqueness and infinite value of every human life could not stand by while 300,000 men, women and children are massacred in Darfur. It is unsettling to see world leaders praise the pope for recognizing one genocide while they watch another being perpetrated before their very eyes. To call Congress into special session and override the principles of federalism in an effort to save the life of a woman many believe was already dead while doing nothing to save millions who everyone agrees are alive smacks of hypocrisy.
Those who are committed to life must reevaluate their support for state-sponsored death. If House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) believes that those who removed Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube are murderers, what does he have to say about his home state, Texas, which has almost certainly executed innocent people?
The argument used to be that the legal system had rendered a judgment and that it was improper to interfere. Neither DeLay nor President Bush can hide behind that canard anymore. They have made their view clear: When a life is in the balance, the courts and the judicial process be damned. If there is even a chance of life, no hurdle is too great.
Why not apply a similar standard to death-penalty cases? If there is even a chance that innocent life may be extinguished, ignore every ruling, shatter every precedent, battle every foe to protect it.
Lots of words have been said in the last week about the value of human life. This week let’s all prove we mean them.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John KerryJohn KerryDepleted Dems look to Senate for 2020 nominee Voters want to drain the swamp? They can start with Louisiana GOP As Congress adjusts to Trump, Iran put under the pressure it deserves MORE (D-Mass.) last year