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Culture War to the Death

Gov. Jeb Bush has ordered the feeding tube reinserted into Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman who has been artificially fed for 13 years.

Bush contravened a court order. Terri’s parents had implored the governor to save their daughter.

Is cutting off food and water to a patient murder, as it surely would be with an infant? Is pulling out Terri’s feeding tube to let her die of starvation and dehydration morally different from giving her a lethal injection? In ending the life of a pet, the injection seems more “humane.”

In France, this debate has exploded. Marie Humbert, acting at the request of her mute, deaf, paralyzed, nearly blind son Vincent, put an overdose of sedatives in his feeding tube. Vincent did not die. He fell into a coma and became a “human vegetable.” Then, his doctor ordered all life support ended. About Vincent’s death, there is no argument. He was put to death by his mother and doctor.

On both cases, men and women who believe themselves moral are divided. In the phrase of author Thomas Sowell, what we have here are “Visions in Conflict.”

Christian traditionalists contend that God is the Author of life who alone decides when life ends. No man can destroy innocent life. Among such traditionalists are John Paul II and those lobbying Governor Bush to save the life of Terri Schiavo.

On the other side of the moral divide are those who argue that whether or not God exists, there is no higher law to which human law must conform. Each individual has the right to decide when to end a life that has become unbearable. And when a Terri Schiavo cannot make that decision, those closest to her can.

As Governor Bush intervened on behalf of Terri’s parents, the ACLU intervened on the side of her husband, who wanted Terri’s life ended.

The positions are irreconcilable. Each reflects the view of one of the adversaries in the great Culture War in the West, as we enter deeper into a post-Christian era where the old laws no longer bind.

There is no doubt that the traditionalists are in retreat. In France, 88 percent consider themselves tolerant of euthanasia. In Holland, assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legalized. Children from 12 to 18 can be euthanized with their parents’ consent, if they argue that their suffering is unbearable and a doctor concludes that there is no realistic chance of amelioration.

Oregon has passed a Death with Dignity Act, legalizing suicide for the terminally ill with six months to live. Eighteen Oregonians killed themselves in 1998. Last year, the number rose to 38. Even Dr. Kevorkian, in prison for having put to death individuals who were only deeply despondent, is admired by some as a social pioneer.

Trends in the moral and social universe seem such that the West of 2050 will not even be recognizable to the West of 1950.

Christianity is dying in Europe, its proscriptions ignored by the many and unknown to the young. Europeans believe they have a right to end their own lives as they choose and to abort the lives of their unborn. Dutch doctors perform “mercy killings” on terminally ill patients in a land where doctors were heroes, 60 years ago, for resisting the Nazis’ euthanasia program.

Moreover, Europe is aging. By mid-century, a third of Europe’s population will be over 65, a tenth over 80. Nursing homes will be stuffed to capacity with the elderly, feeble, sick, incontinent, dying.

To care for Europe’s exploding population of elderly, taxes will have to be raised repeatedly on the shrinking share of the population still working. Immigrants will have to be imported to care for them in retirement centers, nursing homes, hospitals, and hospices.And among this godless population, for the young schooled in the utilitarian dogma of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and having embraced La Dolce Vita, a question will insistently arise: why work endlessly only to see half our wages go to keep alive, fed, and housed “useless eaters” whose lives are ending and who no longer contribute to society? Why should they not depart when they become ill, and cease to consume all our wealth?

If there is no God, no life after death, no higher law, and society may permit euthanasia, why can society not decide to make euthanasia mandatory for those who have begun to die? What is to stop the coming generation from kicking aged Baby Boomer and Gen Xers into their graves?

In 1938, the father of “Baby Knauer,” a retarded blind boy missing an arm and leg, appealed to Germany’s ruler to let his son die. Permission was granted. That leader was a father of the New Europe, and, as it now appears, a man ahead of his time.

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