"This people pays me lip service but their heart is far from me." Jesus, quoting Isaiah 29, in Matthew 15:8
Adopting the language of the Catholic Church, Mr. Bush and Congressional leaders this week sought to exalt themselves as champions of a "culture of life" as the legal remedies to prolong the life of Mrs. Terri Schiavo were gradually exhausted. We are united now in praying for this Catholic woman and her faithful long-suffering family. But Mrs. Schiavo has fallen further victim to a stunning political bait-and-switch, as politicians who trumpeted her cause were simultaneously looking for ways to cut health services that sustain the lives of millions of our poorest citizens. Furthermore, the tragedy in Minnesota this week served to highlight the cost in lives of political inaction by these same conservatives in the service of the Gun Lobby. Perhaps most starkly revealing of the true Administration stance on the "sanctity of life" has been Mr. Bush's unsuccessful effort to persuade the Supreme Court to allow continued executions of minors and the mentally retarded, in direct violation of Catholic doctrine.
When it came to investing dollars in upholding the "sanctity of life," or losing contributions from wealthy constituencies, politicians on the right couldn't abandon the "culture of life" quickly enough. Republican House leaders sought to slice $14 billion from the Medicaid budget that supports nursing home care for the indigent, including Mrs. Schiavo. A six-month-old baby named Sun Hudson was taken off life support last week in Houston because the prognosis of his developmental disorder was poor and his grief-stricken mother had no money. His death was enabled by a 1999 "futile care" statute signed into law by then-Governor George Bush.
This past week's issue of the American Heart Association's journal Circulation is dedicated to documenting the significantly greater burden of cardiovascular disease among our minority communities, and the health care disparities that in part contribute to their substantially increased mortality compared to other Americans. Rather than working to fix this unconscionable disparity, the Bush Administration is selling it as a reason to pour Social Security money into private accounts.
Now comes special federal legislation, rushed through Congress in the middle of the night and focused on the fate of Mrs. Schiavo alone. This law signed by Mr. Bush explicitly excluded similar legal remedy for anyone else in the same situation. These three legislative acts—slicing Medicaid funding in our federal budget, protecting Texas hospitals from charity care expenditures, and creating a privileged status for Mrs. Schiavo's life—send a message that the lives of the poor matter much less than the well-to-do, unless they can be used as political symbols that mask this double standard.
In the one most concrete case of a loss of life that Congress could immediately correct, we continue to see total indifference to the spread of gun violence in America. Highly publicized gun massacres have now occurred three times in the past two weeks. But the Congressional leadership has directly sabotaged renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban, sought to repeal gun laws in our national capital, and offered sweeping legal immunity to those who profit the most from gun sales. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, guns kill more than 30,000 people annually in the US, and African-Americans are more than twice as likely as others to be killed by guns.
This past week the Catholic Bishops issued a statement reaffirming our Church's unequivocal opposition to the death penalty. Politicians of every stripe have long pandered to the general public's fear of crime by seeking to execute the poorest and least well-represented criminals. This Administration even argued in the Supreme Court for the continued execution of minors and the mentally retarded, but thankfully from a Catholic perspective those arguments were ultimately rejected.
As Catholics, we are called to pay more than lip service to our respect for life. If the right-wing politicians want to stand up for the "sanctity of life," let us see a truly consistent ethic that recognizes the increased likelihood of death among poor Americans resulting from cuts to the federal healthcare budget, massive political contributions by the gun industry, and the continued addiction of weak politicians to the injustices of the death penalty in America. Terri Schiavo has helped us all, particularly we Catholics in this Easter Season, to contemplate again the fragility of life and to reject the selective valuing of one life over another.