Who Can Claim Life as a Culture?


This Memorial Day we remember 25 million souls lost to 25 years of AIDS. Motivated by the death of the love of my early life in 1996 from AIDS, I started thinking about death politically. Carl died just months before medications the developed world takes for granted became available, and months after the US Navy denied him compassionate access to those meds after a five-year study in which he participated. Months meant the difference in him seeing his two sons grow up and our lives continuing together.

In 1997, I began a journey working with Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, culminating early this year in the US Supreme Court affirming Oregon’s law 6-3: the federal government had no right to interfere in a doctor or pharmacist’s compassionate decision to alleviate suffering at the request of the patient. Strict safeguards make that once controversial law a model of compromise among medical, legal, political, ethics, policy, mental health, faith, hospice, and most importantly, patient and family communities. Compromise works.

1997 was also the year I became HIV positive, and with the new medications, HIV began a journey from fatal disease to manageable illness without cure – for some. For too many of the 40 million people living with HIV, lack of basic nutrition, clean water, access to proper health care, prevention, education, medication and moral support continues to mean AIDS = Death. But when you look fear in the eye and don’t blink, you find real meaning in life, and faith. This week at the UN, the world will look fear in the eye again. The pandemic is now more clearly economic, and suddenly, after 25 years, conservative ideologues slow to see AIDS as crisis then now believe it is important. We’ve been waiting.

What conservative ideologues do by derisively referring to progressives as favoring a “Culture of Death” is to deny their own cause … bringing God’s will to “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If they choose to alienate, obfuscate and excommunicate, that is their choice. Many with strong faith do not dismiss the collective wisdom of humanity found in science. The reason we fight to secure Death with Dignity laws, or fight AIDS with proven prevention tools, or empower women to make their own health care decisions, is because we love life. We want everyone to share every minute of life with the blessings of liberty, in pursuit of happiness, and in celebration of the world’s rich cultural diversity – all of which require basic health.

People fight AIDS precisely because they have faith we can manage and slow complex diseases or global issues, like poverty. Looking at the world as it exists and devoting energy to solving complex global problems requires a faith deeper than rote learning. It is narrow ideology that interferes with solving these problems sooner, and postpones lasting peace.

The science v. faith dichotomy is perpetuated by those who use simple sound bites to undermine data they don’t agree with, forcing others with faith just as strong to defend the complexities of science. Battles that pit simple against complex are won by the simple; wars are won by visionaries who see through complexity to peace. Progressives have lost a few battles lately, politically speaking. We’re focused on winning the peace.

The global community gathers this week to review progress since establishing goals five years ago to fight the AIDS pandemic. The news is not good, but there are glimmers of hope.

Vaccines vex researchers, but life-extending medicines are enabling more people to manage illness. They are expensive and must reach more people.

Infection rates are stabilizing in some isolated instances, but trends among women, communities of color and those in poverty continue to increase. Comprehensive sexuality education works if allowed.

Women and girls continue to be the unwitting and unwilling way patriarchal systems demonstrate oppression and ineffective solutions. Microbicides hold great promise to give women a tool to protect themselves from disease, if the funding and the will can be found to move them more quickly through trial, to production and distribution.

Marriage is the solution, conservative ideologues say, unless you are gay. Stigmatizing sexuality leads to denial and shame by many men who have sex with men, contributing to, not alleviating suffering. Marriage is also the problem for many women where oppression leads to discrimination, which leads to violence, which all leads to disease.

What works in cultures where women’s rights are accepted may not work where they aren’t, so conservative ideologues might review their “one size fits all” strategies before exporting them. If you can’t see beyond the nose on your face, how can you help anyone?

Many talk about promoting life, but can’t point to anything – other than political battles – that they have contributed to global healing at the UN. How could they? They hold the organization in contempt and participate only to disrupt.

Advocates heading to the UN meetings this week are preparing for battle. Agreements are being parsed, protests planned at both extremes, and public health advocates are diligently dotting and crossing letters in many languages so their voices are heard. Some protests will be noisy and visible, others invisible silent daggers cutting the heart out of agreements that will postpone healing.

The people they fight over, people living with HIV, may not be aware of this meeting. If they are, I suspect they have one simple question:

How many of us will miss seeing our children grow up and our loves flourish waiting for political battles to be set aside, recognizing we share common culture when it comes to life?

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To schedule an interview with Scott Swenson please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.