By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
The Terri Schiavo case reminds us that Americans are a people of plenty, and also a people of plenteous faith. Both forms of abundance will be tested in the years to come, as the religious right fuses with the secular left around the common project of big government.
One effect of Schiavo has been the knitting together of conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, into a common cause: weaving a seamless "culture of life." And while polls show that these conservatives are a minority, it's apparent that they have political energy and alliance-building acumen far in excess of their numbers.
That's why, for example, few have dared to raise the issue of dollar cost in the Schiavo case. Terri Schiavo died Thursday, 13 days after her feeding tube was removed. But once the emotions of the moment cool down a bit, it might be worth asking just how much of a burden society wishes to undertake in the name of "life." For example, Schiavo's hospice reportedly charges $80,000 a year. Who's been paying that? The St. Petersburg Times reports that Medicaid, a government program, has been paying for "much" of Schiavo's care since 2002. Is that a good use of health-care dollars? Should we pile such expenditures onto our collective tax bill -- or onto the deficit?
Meanwhile, other costly strange-bedfellow alliances are being created. On March 16, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the dean of liberalism in the U.S. Senate, teamed up with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to co-sponsor the Prenatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act. The purpose of the bill is to gather and distribute information about birth defects detected in utero.
According to Brownback, a conservative Protestant, the bill is intended to stop the "new eugenics," which he defines as "systematic, disability-based discrimination." In Brownback's mind, aborting fetuses with, say, Down syndrome, is a form of "discrimination." The Kansan says, "For some conditions that can be detected in the womb, we are aborting 80 percent or more of the babies who test positive." Evidently, Brownback believes the world would be better if such babies were born.
For his part, Kennedy, a liberal Catholic, is pro-choice -- although given the current mood, and with yet another re-election campaign coming up, he probably doesn't mind sidling up to pro-lifers. In the meantime, Kennedy has gained across-the-aisle support for yet another health-care entitlement: This legislation doesn't argue for or against aborting a defective fetus; it simply mandates more federal spending on prenatal issues. And so Kennedy's dream of universal national health care is one step closer to reality.
As Republicans and Democrats collaborate possibly to bring more special-needs kids into the world, the "culture of life" is displacing an older concept, "the quality of life." Losing ground is the pragmatic "quality of life" argument -- a movement based on the alleviation of suffering and also, dare we say it, on the feeling that some kinds of health care are simply too expensive for society to bear.
Indeed, a politically potent idea nowadays is that the quality of life is less important than the quality of suffering. In February, Peggy Noonan, perhaps the most influential Catholic voice in punditry today, argued in The Wall Street Journal that Pope John Paul II's waning agony is valuable. The pontiff, she declared, "is telling us it is important in an age like ours to honor the suffering of the old and the infirm." The pope, she concluded, "stands for life, for all of life." Noonan and the culture-of-lifers make an honest case for their vision of pain and suffering -- for life over death in most cases. That's a theme resonant in Christian theology and tradition.
In this view, the life of Terri Schiavo has value; the lives of the unborn have value; the pain of the pope -- and other elderly sufferers closer to home -- has value. The culture-of-lifers are willing to shoulder their share of this added burden, and they want all Americans to shoulder -- that is, pay for -- the rest of it.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service