The Strong and the Weak

The "culture of life" is a simple idea: the strong must protect the weak.

"Culture of life" is the new catchphrase among social conservatives—including President Bush. "Because a society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable, we must strive to build a culture of life," the president said in his State of the Union speech this year. And in response to the death of Terri Schiavo, Bush last week said, "I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected."

Where did the term come from? "To the best of my memory, the pope was the first one to use it," Michael Novak, a scholar of religion at the American Enterprise Institute, said about the late Pope John Paul II. "He always saw the connection between abortion and euthanasia. That is, if there's an ability for someone to make a decision about life at the beginning, then it's going to happen at the end—and with modern medicine, all the more so."

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., echoed the theme on the House floor last month when he defended the bill to transfer jurisdiction in the Schiavo case to the federal courts. "We must build a culture of life that welcomes and defends all human life," the House Judiciary Committee chairman said. "The measure of a nation's commitment to the sanctity of life is reflected in its laws to the extent those laws honor and defend its most vulnerable citizens." For conservative activists, the most vulnerable citizens include both unborn children and disabled persons like Terri Schiavo. Both groups are on conservatives' culture-of-life agenda.

Conservatives have won power. And they have made gains in public opinion. In 1994, according to the Gallup Poll, one-third of Americans thought that abortions should be "legal under any circumstances." Only 13 percent thought abortions should be "illegal in all circumstances." A majority took the moderate position—"legal only under certain circumstances."

And now, more than a decade later? A majority of respondents still take the moderate position. But the number who favor legal abortions under any circumstances has dropped 10 points, to 23 percent. The number who say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances has increased to 20 percent. The two groups are now just about equal.

Conservatives are broadening the definition of their agenda from "family values" to the "culture of life," and including in it opposition to embryonic stem-cell research. "I will work with Congress to ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation," Bush said in the State of the Union. He even alluded to the culture of life in a recent radio address when he talked about the school shootings in Minnesota. "To keep our children safe and protected, we must continue to foster a culture that affirms life," he said on March 26.

Some in the Republican Party establishment find this agenda threatening. Former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., an Episcopal minister, writes, "The problem ... is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement." Even the president might eventually find it troublesome. On March 25, brother Paul O'Donnell, spokesman for the parents of Terri Schiavo, called on Bush: "If he wants to promote a culture of life, then hard times demand tough decisions and tough actions. Save Terri Schiavo!"

The issue created an angry and embittered constituency that sees Schiavo's fate as a gross miscarriage of justice. That constituency, which helped Republicans win control of Congress, the White House, and the state of Florida, feels betrayed. The politicians didn't deliver. Even the Republican-appointed judges disappointed this group. "For sure, there's going to be a lot of discussion about how to rein in the judiciary," anti-abortion activist Randall Terry said after Schiavo's death. "That is going to be one of the key elements that come from this."

When you create an angry and embittered constituency, one thing you can expect is retribution. Which is what House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is promising. "Our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change," DeLay said in a statement. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Pope John Paul II saw the culture of life as a broad, humanitarian agenda that encompasses opposition to the death penalty and to the war in Iraq. As Michael Novak explained, "The pope had the idea that you can't maintain a democracy, which is the best protection of human rights, and you can't protect a dynamic economy, which lifts up the poor, unless you also have an appropriate culture for it ... a culture of life, meaning an attitude of generosity, an attitude of concern for the weakest among humans."

The culture of life is a simple and powerful idea: The strong must protect the weak. To conservatives, that means at the beginning of life and at the end of life. Their critics ask, "What about in between?" One of these critics is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who showed up in Florida to try to save Terri Schiavo. "There are those who love the fetus and want to starve the babies," Jackson said. "There are those who love Terri and ignore long-term health care."

It would seem that the political battle is not over whether the strong must protect the weak—but when.