What it means for a lawmaker to be “pro-life” is not a rhetorical question any more. The refusal of Senate Republicans, nearly all of whom identify as pro-life, to support the 9/11 First Responders bill, also known as the James Zadroga bill—a measure that would provide funding for healthcare for firefighters, police and others who became ill as a result of their 9/11 related work—gives this question new urgency.
The shameful spectacle of antiabortion Republicans preventing, as of this writing, the possibility of even a vote for this measure before the holiday recess also makes clear that this movement has gone beyond its historic valuing of the life of a fetus over that of a woman. Now it is mainly the male 9/11 workers whose lives are apparently expendable, because they cannot afford their own health care.
Until now, those opposed to abortion have been able to more or less rhetorically wiggle out of the inconvenient real-world contradictions that present themselves. For years, pro-choicers have joked that for the anti-abortion movement, “life begins at conception and ends at birth.” The taunt is a reference to the fact that many of those politicians opposed to abortion have a dismal record when it comes to supporting the social services that children and families, especially those from low income backgrounds, need. (When John McCain ran for president in 2008 on a strict antiabortion platform, it was revealed that the Children’s Defense Fund had named him the Senator with the worst record on the funding of children’s programs). But hardhearted as many of us might find this opposition to needed services, one cannot conclude that these votes represent an implicit endorsement of the idea that poor children should die.
Similarly, years ago people began pointing out the fact that many lawmakers who are antiabortion also are strongly in favor of capital punishment. The response typically given by such politicians to these allegations of hypocrisy is that an abortion is the taking of an “innocent” life, while capital punishment takes the life of an evil-doer.
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But the refusal to support the First Responders bill really is about a willingness to let people die—people who are not only “innocent” but brave and selfless individuals who saved others’ lives. The four responders who appeared recently on the Jon Stewart show—all white middle aged males—did not use euphemisms to describe their health problems that resulted from their work. “I’m dying,” one of Stewart’s guests, a policeman who can no longer afford needed care, flatly said.
This jaw-dropping indifference to the fate of these authentic heroes on the part of Republican senators is but one in a series of deeply disturbing events that betray pro-lifers’ willingness to let their fellow humans die. In Arizona, the strongly antiabortion governor, Jan Brewer, and the predominately antiabortion legislature, recently cut provisions in the state’s Medicaid program for lifesaving transplants. Unless that policy is quickly reversed, some of the state’s citizens will die, period. And in the latest chapter of the saga that began some months ago, when a Catholic hospital, also in Arizona, was chastised and a nun administrator demoted, because a lifesaving abortion was performed on a young mother of four, the Bishop of Phoenix has threatened to revoke the status of the hospital as a Catholic institution if there is not a promise in writing that an abortion will never take place there again.
It does not really matter if the Republican senators’ opposition to the First Responder bill is based on their professed concern about deficit spending (despite their recent support of extending tax cuts for the wealthiest, which adds hugely to the deficit) or simply a reluctance to let another Democratic measure pass in this lame duck session. What this sorry incident shows, to borrow a line from one of the greatest movies of all times, is that just as in the cinematic version of war-time Casablanca, human life is cheap in the real world of contemporary pro-life politicians.