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Thou shalt not play God.

The Vatican recently brought its big guns to bear to defend the "right to life": the right to exist from the moment of conception until the naturally ordained moment of death. The message of Pope John Paul's Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) is that human life is always and everywhere sacred - an absolute value which democracies ignore at the peril of totalitarianism should they permit abortion, euthanasia, and the use of new reproductive technologies. Excoriated were the twin bogeys of moral relativism and radical individualism: such ethical evils undermine a pure commitment to life and lead to a selfish preoccupation with the quality of one's existence, resulting in a "culture of death," a "war of the powerful against the weak" in which helpless embryos and the terminally ill are disposed of at our convenience.

This, at any rate, was the overt topic of the encyclical. But there is another message hidden in the text that has little to do with the sacredness of life. It has, instead, to do with the fundamental issue of control - or, as psychologists might put it, the "locus of control" in our lives. From a feminist perspective, this issue centers on the power to choose one's reproductive future, using contraception or abortion if necessary. Declaring the absolute value of the life of a newly formed fetus is, on this interpretation, simply a blunt instrument of rhetorical combat used by the religious right to make sure women pay the full price of indulging their sexual appetites. This "gospel of life," masquerading as a moral sermon, simply perpetuates patriarchy by limiting women's control over unwanted pregnancies.

There is a broader perspective, however, from which the encyclical can be seen as essentially concerned with control. When it comes to the deliberate creation of human life using in-vitro techniques, the pope - inconsistent with his ostensible absolute value - rules this option out of bounds. This gives the game away. What's at issue, really, isn't life but, rather, how life is created and the extent to which human intention and ingenuity control the process, both before and after birth. Test-tube babies are denied the papal imprimatur because they represent the hubris of engineering what was once universally considered a matter of divine will or natural law. From this perspective, not only do papal injunctions against new reproductive technologies compromise a woman's autonomy; they fundamentally oppose the basic human impulse to gain control over our. selves and our world.

Contraception and abortion, on the encyclical's surface, affront the supreme value of life by making a new life less likely or impossible; but on the deeper issue of control, their true fault, which the pope himself may not consciously appreciate, lies in giving us dominion over a big part of God's plan. We were told to go forth and multiply, but what if it turns out that we'd rather not? There are other values which may trump the sheer value of life now that we overrun the earth and resources grow scarce. The human ability to anticipate and manage the eventual consequences of pregnancy - both for the individual and the species - wrests our fate from passive participation in the divine order, and this naturally worries those who have a stake in transmitting the word of God.

This interpretation applies equally to the encyclical's prohibition against euthanasia. The ostensible evil is the "premature" end of life, but the real target, again, is human efficacy in the face of avoidable suffering. What John Paul would deny to those in extremis is the power to direct a biological process in accordance with their own wishes instead of enduring needless agony and indignity at the whim of the body. This denial asserts not so much a right to life as an obligation to exist, no matter what the cost. But for whose benefit is the obligation imposed? Only for those who fear that the "natural order" might be supplanted by human intention. The pope declares the "supreme" value of living out those last, painful weeks and days in order to block our taking control - or, in other words, to prevent us from playing God.

Taking control, however, is precisely what we are doing, the pope's injunctions notwithstanding. We may well botch the job, and all our inventions and interventions may give us a world we regret. But this risk is eminently preferable to abjuring the talents nature has so generously granted us and thus artificially limiting our power to avoid personal and social suffering. We are strongly inclined toward an autonomy that places the quality of life before mere existence, and the Vatican will simply have to live with that fact.

Thomas W. Clark is associate director of the Institute for Naturalistic Philosophy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Tufts and Harvard universities.
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Title Annotation:criticism of Pope John Paul II's encyclical 'Evangelium Vitae'
Author:Clark, Thomas W.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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