Culture of life / culture of death

Pre-war German propaganda poster promoting euthanasia for the disabled.

To the few who check this blog regularly, I apologize for the long silence. Other duties called, and I was simply too swamped to think about blogging. Of course, I have still been paying close attention to everything that’s going on in academia and elsewhere.

Lately, I have been brooding again upon the famous distinction made by Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul the Great) between a “culture of life” and a “culture of death” in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. If you have not read Evangelium Vitae, I encourage you to at least read the first chapter. The clarity, force and logical soundness of the encyclical will inspire you, provided that you are open to the message.

Why has this been on my mind? Well, in part because it never really leaves. Our North American culture is so saturated in death that those who value life must be in a constant state of rebellion. Also, my bedtime reading for a couple weeks was Michael Burleigh’s 1994 book, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900-1945, which looks at the development of euthanasia theory and practice in twentieth-century Germany and how it ultimately led to the “Aktion T4” euthanasia program. It’s astonishing how little, relatively speaking, has been written on Aktion T4, given the overwhelming vastness of the existing literature on Nazi Germany. The faces of some of those thousands of unwanted people, disposed of in what were characterized as acts of mercy, have been popping into my dreams.

Just as I was dealing with T4 nightmares, the abortion issue resurfaced in Canadian news, with Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau stating that all new Liberal candidates must be pro-choice. This is not a surprising development, but it is frustrating, given that the ruling Conservatives have refused to reopen the abortion debate despite the pleading of some of their socially conservative backbench MPs. In fact, the Conservative Party seems to have abandoned social conservatism entirely, focusing instead on the economy and a pro-USA, pro-Israel fanaticism in foreign policy. The NDP, our tireless left-wing party, has also jumped into the abortion debate because they think that a total lack of legal restrictions on abortion in Canada is not enough. One NDP MP has put forward a private member’s motion asking the House of Commons to support the statement that “a woman’s right to choose abortion is a fundamental question of equality and human rights, both in Canada and around the world.” In addition, the Liberal party made headlines in February when, at their national convention, they passed a resolution in favour of the legalization of assisted suicide. Right now, the Quebec National Assembly is poised to vote in favour of legislation that allows for doctor-assisted suicide. Certainly, the smell of death is in the air. A recent blog post at First Things sums up the situation well, and echoes some of my thoughts on George Grant from this post a while back.

All of this will have little impact on mainstream university campuses, where the current obsessions with “rape culture” (which I too would oppose if it were a real thing), systemic racism (ditto on my position), and the plight of the genderqueer (whatever) leaves our little culture of death at the bottom of everyone’s list of concerns. Yet, it is at the cutting edge of the culture of death, in Canadian clinics and hospitals, where blood is constantly flowing, and where it may yet flow in even greater quantities. Furthermore, this culture of death is clearly systemic, embedded within a “structure of sin” (Evangelium Vitae 1.12) as pervasive as anything Gramsci or Foucault could have imagined. Why does a critical project on behalf of the Gospel of Life seem so unthinkable in mainstream scholarship, given that almost every fundable project in the Humanities is tied to some form of emancipatory politics? What could be more relevant than issues of life and death that affect millions?

Perhaps the time for a flourishing of pro-life scholarship has arrived. What would pro-life scholarship consist of? Such scholarship already exists within the field of ethics, and bioethics in particular. But what about studying our culture of death in relation to economics, for example? The economic implications of abortion, and now euthanasia, are immense. How has legalized abortion affected the behaviour of North American consumers, or facilitated changes in the structure of the labour force, and could our current economy exist without it? Does our economy “run” on birth-control and abortion? What economic changes would be required so that women (especially young women) and families would not feel financial pressure to turn to abortion? What are the economic benefits of eugenic abortions (or, Where Have All the ‘Special’ Kids Gone?)? (Of course, I am assuming that eugenic abortion is economically beneficial, which it almost certainly is, despite being abominable.) If assisted suicide becomes legal in Canada, how much money will we save? Will social pressure will be applied to, say, ex-smokers or the morbidly obese, to off themselves so that they can spare taxpayers from paying the price of their vices? How many grandmas and grandpas will check out early so that their kids don’t have to become financially-strapped caregivers?

Within the humanities, pro-life scholarship would specifically address the culture of the culture of death. How do assumptions regarding the value of human life enter into cultural production? How have certain artists, writers, musicians or other cultural producers sought to resist or disrupt a culture of death? I should note that after writing this blog post, I discovered a fascinating article by Matthew Tan, entitled “Abortion in/as a Consumer Structure,” from a 2014 issue of Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics, that is a perfect example of the kind of scholarship I’m talking about. Pro-life scholarship does exist, even if confined to Catholic publications. If you know of any other good examples, let me know. Here is the full citation: Tan, Matthew. “Abortion in/as a Consumer Structure.” Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics 4.1 (2014): article 7.

Humanities scholars often work to introduce the rest of the world to the stories and voices of people who have been marginalized or forgotten. Let’s also pay some attention to those who were not given the chance to speak, or who were permanently silenced before their stories reached their proper end.