Saturday, August 22, 2009

What Does it Mean to Play God?

I've been absorbed in thought these past two weeks, as euthanasia and death panel get bandied about in regards to the Obama administration's less and less likely attempt to reform health care, of what it means to play god. The term has repeatedly come to the lips of Rush Limbaugh as he castigates the current political powers for working to bring our health care system into the current century, or as he asserts, to wipe out the weak and infirm. It has been alluded to by the president who, when asked by Rick Warren during the presidential campaign, "At what point does a human being get rights?" - and it is fair to add lose them - Obama famously answered that determining that point was "above his pay grade." Presumably only God is above a US president's pay grade.

Despite the glaring fact that insurance companies, and the medical industry on the whole, play god routinely as a matter of earnings, of simple policy, the religious right has taken to calling any direct and meaningful discussion of end-of-life care that doesn't involve pain and suffering playing god. The term is applied by the right to those doctors - or family members or grieved spouses like Michael Schiavo - who wish to let life end naturally, that is, without unnatural or artificial - medical - prolongment. Life, in their simple equation, is that which lives by any means. And so quality of life, a term that insults the disabled, for instance, has lost it's potency and meaning.

And quality of life has been removed from the list of things that make being alive worthwhile. Breathing, nor ability to swallow nor even consciousness are necessary for acceptible quality of life, in their eyes. Yet this standard is applied with irony and ruthlessness: how many US evangelical organizations opposed the invasion of Iraq? Or the continued underfunding of inner city schools? How many support condom distrubition here or abroad to curb the HIV epidemic? Quality of life as a national or international objective is lost and playing god, or rather, working to release the suffering from their pain has become playing god.

Yet once was a time when transplanting a heart was considered also playing god. When did medical prolonging of life - or prolonging of death as this week's NYT article on palliative care, unfortunatley titled At the End, Not a Cure but Comfort, calls it - become the natural way to die and the natural way to die become playing god?

This morning I reread two articles that were referred to me some months ago by a friend: the first, Life Everlasting: The Religious Right and the Right to Die by Garrett Keizer; and the second, Welcome to Cancerland, by Barbara Ehrenreich about her own diagnosis with breast cancer.

If you are pushed by the current death dialogue to think about how we die, or more specifically, how you wish to die - which you very well may not be, so much of the discourse is not about death, that horror-inducing subject which must be left unspoken, but lies and political motivations - I urge you to read these two articles.