WASHINGTON -- Denying science on the one hand while using the other to punch out the codes of the latest technological marvel seems to have reached epidemic proportions. Those who would have reinserted Terri Schiavo's feeding tube despite overwhelming evidence of her lack of viability spread their message of protest and raised the money to support it through the epitome of the new age -- the Internet.
Eighty years after the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" stirred the passions of Americans to almost fever pitch over the subject of evolution, we are still at it with concerted efforts in a number of states to make sure young people aren't tainted by Darwin's blasphemous theories no matter how many bones of early humans are dug up. Some casuists still want it banned from the classroom and others at least want labels put on books explaining to students that evolution is just a theory. Religion, of course, is undeniable.
In a growing list of other states, legislatures are adopting laws that would permit licensed pharmacists to reject drug prescriptions that violate their religious and moral convictions, like birth-control devices and pills. Not only must women have no choice once reproduction has begun, they should be denied the right to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies. Meanwhile, the case of Schiavo -- who died Thursday 13 days after her feeding tube was removed -- has brought about a frenzied effort by any number of state legislatures to deal with right-to-die issues.
In the midst of all this is the huge controversy over stem-cell research, which holds out the hope of solving some of mankind's medical dilemmas, including Alzheimer's disease. It is difficult to believe that this science won't ultimately prevail despite a series of bioethical questions and religious objections. So in what century are we living?
Perhaps that's the next question Congress should be asking itself after ill-advisedly jumping into the Schiavo controversy and producing what any number of constitutional scholars believe could become a dangerous precedent. In the last rejection by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a judge appointed by President Bush's father, no less, took the opportunity to put the matter into perspective for both Congress and the president, who signed the bill giving federal courts jurisdiction over Terri Schiavo.
Lawmakers, said federal Judge Stanley Birch Jr., acted "in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers' blueprint for the governance of a free people -- our Constitution." The good judge's words came as polls have begun to show that there is overwhelming public sentiment disapproving of Congress' interference in the matter. It seems doubtful under those circumstances then that Congress would act today as it did two weeks ago in an extraordinary interruption of its Easter holiday.
The contradictions between deeply rooted religious beliefs and science should be expected given the fact that man's progress in scientific terms has taken a long time. Little more than 100 years ago, most of the world was still relying on horses and airplanes were only dreamed about. So, in reality, the ethical codes still have not caught up with the avalanche of scientific achievement, most of it coming since World War II, causing confusion and chaos and challenging all the precepts handed down to us by our ancestors.
But philosophizing (mine is certainly elementary in its scope) is cheap. What is not cheap is the price the next 50 years will exact on our system unless there can be accommodations. It is totally unrealistic to believe the clock can be turned back, that we universally will adopt the theory that God created monkeys and people at the exact same time. It is just as wrong to believe science has no true ethical limits and the religious creeds have no place in its advancement.
The Schiavo controversy will fade, but another will take its place. Hopefully, it has brought our senses to bear on the absolute need to put our wishes for dying in the concrete of legal language and placing that document in the hands of someone who can be trusted to carry them out.
Americans have the right to expect that their elected representatives in the future will move cautiously in their deliberations and not be driven by the emotions of the moment, lending themselves to any particular cause for purely political gains, which, in the Schiavo case, looks more and more like what occurred. That probably is too much to hope for.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.