One thing you hear a lot in the conservotrad bubble is this so-called “culture of life,” that elusive utopia governed by Catholic social teachings in which abortion, contraception, euthanasia, stem-cell research are absent, and human dignity is flourishing. Juxtaposed against the “culture of life” is the “culture of death,” which if you believe John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, sounds a lot like the world outlined in Peter Singer’s book Practical Ethics:
[The culture of death] is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.
During my traditionalist days, this rhetoric sounded appealing to me, particular as someone on the autism spectrum who was well aware of the dismissive attitudes society often manifests towards the ill and/or disabled. Yet, even back then it was evident that my idea of a “culture of life” was considerably different than that of many of my co-religionists. I noticed that their “culture of life” didn’t ascribe any moral value to non-human life, be it to other sentient animals or the natural world in the general sense. In fact, climate change was rejected a priori among most of the pro-lifers I knew, something I found personally offensive. The “culture of life” is thoroughly anthropocentric, so much so, that it has nothing to say about ethical issues that don’t revolve around a narrow set of bedroom issues and rigid ideas about gender roles.
I also noticed that the disabled tended to be fetishized in “culture of life” discourse. That is, the disabled are “precious” and a “joy” to their families and church, but aren’t encouraged to assert their autonomy, whatever form that might take. Part of this stems from the unfortunate fact that disability discourse in general tends to be heavily focused on the interests of parents and other takers, and since children in conservative thought are just appendeges of their parents, their is no room for them to have an independent voice, especially if they are disabled. “Culture of lifers” like to assert that they don’t abort disabled fetuses, unlike those horrible secular folks, but it doesn’t seem to me that they are really “seeing” disabled people as anything other than footballs in their culture war issues, especially since many of them routinely voting against things that would actually make disabled people’s lives easier, like mass transit or better public education.
In fact, if we examine the issue historically, the traditional way for Catholic societies to deal with problematic aspects of the population — from unwed mothers and their children to the disabled — is to simply warehouse them in institutions run by religious sisters and/or brothers and then not think about them. These institutions, over-populated and understaffed, had high mortality rates, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing from the perspective of the workers, since the odd flu or typhus epidemic could reduce the number of dependents they had to care for. This “warehousing principle” is hardly a practice that is conducive to the fostering and protection of human dignity, however one defines the phrase.
I remember when I was at St F often being told that we needed to “return to a respect for life,” which implies that there was a point in American history when human life was respected. Even then, I found that idea — that the United States used to “respect life” before falling from grace after Roe v. Wade — absurd, given our history of slavery, Jim Crow, indigenous genocide, and all the other outrages. Any country that would allow the creation, sale, and circulation of lynching postcards has automatically committed a “life fail” (http://withoutsanctuary.org/).
Despite the obsessive hand wringing over a supposed abortion-induced “black genocide,” proponents of the culture of life have nothing to say about the issues that affect actual black people, whether it’s police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, or the lack of well-paying jobs. Many “culture of lifers” would say that abortion is so heinous that it cancels out every other issue, but unless you’re addressing the reasons that make it difficult to be a parent, you’re avoiding the real problems. As the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases illustrate, black zygotes and fetuses may be innocent under pro-life rhetoric, but black people are automatically guilty. There’s a reason why pro-life materials overwhelmingly feature white babies and children; all babies are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Suffice to say, I’ve concluded that the so-called “culture of life” is not only insufficient for human flourishing and dignity, but is also “anti-life” in many ways. I will explore the “anti-life” tendencies of the “culture of life” in future posts.