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Empty chairs and hope

Clint Eastwood's bizarre empty chair performance at the RNC in Tampa resonates with a couple's struggle for parenthood - and the very notion of hope that still echoes from the 2008 election.

For years, my wife and I would sit around our kitchenette table, that sits four, having our meals, the weight of two empty chairs bearing down on both of us.

The empty chairs - a stark reminder of what was missing in our otherwise fulfilling lives. We had been trying, for the better part of a decade, to conceive using various forms of assisted reproductive technologies including in-vitro fertilization (IVF). It took us eight years to have our first, a son. Our daughter was created at the same time but then she, along with six other embryos, was frozen. She was successfully implanted a year and a half later, in a procedure known to have an extremely low success rate. The chairs are now happily filled - elevated with the raucity of two impressible children.

Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Youtube/PBSNewsHour. All rights reserved.Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Youtube/PBSNewsHour. All rights reserved.

The empty chair is a powerful symbol. At the recent Republican Party Convention, Clint Eastwood held a mock interview with an empty chair, seating an imaginary President Barack Obama. Eastwood’s rambling conversation with an empty chair harshly admonished Obama for all his presidential shortcomings. Chris Rock, the American comedian, put it well when he said, "The empty chair was a metaphor for the entire Republican platform. There's nothing there, but blind hatred for a man that doesn't exist." This blind hatred is fuelled by a withering contempt for factual credibility and polarizes the electoral vote. To illustrate this, Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, gave a speech at the Convention that was shredded by journalists for its factual credibility. Even Fox News, the Republican media bastion, noted, "Ryan's speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."

Speaking at the Democratic Party Convention a week later, Bill Clinton remarked how he often disagrees with his Republican peers but has "never learned to hate them." The Republican Party platform is based on a deep-rooted American conservatism. Their ideologies reject the liberal ideals of the Democratic Party. For instance, a majority of Republicans are pro-life and oppose elective abortion because of their religious and moral convictions, whereas Democrats believe women should have the ability to decide whether or not to abort. Democrats advocate that each and every woman has the right to choose for herself whether abortion is morally correct without any government interference. The liberalism that Democrats espouse is an attitude rather than an ideological opinion. It is, according to the American educator-philosopher Morris Cohen, an attitude, “that insists upon questioning everything, seeking not to reject them but to find out what evidence there is to support them rather than their possible alternatives." Giving people the opportunity to question allows them to make choices. Choice is important because it offers hope.

In the three decades since the first "test-tube baby", IVF has become a standard procedure – providing hope to many infertile couples. In the United States alone, IVF is responsible for 60,000 newborn babies every year. The Sanctity of Human Life Act, which Ryan co-sponsored, should it ever pass, would ensure that life begins at fertilization.  This bill would dash the hopes of thousands by criminalizing the destruction of day-old embryos. Clinical IVF protocols would have to change – making the procedure more invasive and prohibitively more expensive. Currently, during IVF, doctors create multiple embryos and implant the healthiest ones in the woman. Embryos that are not implanted are either frozen for use later or destroyed. The Sanctity of Human Life Act would declare embryos legally "people" - so unused embryos that are destroyed or are strategically aborted after implantation would have doctors and parents charged with murder.

A conservative rhetoric is about control, while a liberal attitude is about hope. There are many Democrats who are pushing to have infertility treatments included as a core benefit to many health insurance plans – providing hope to thousands. President Obama was elected on a wave of hope some four years ago. He defined hope as being understood, “by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.”  Humans, whether Republican or Democrat, can live weeks without food, days without water, minutes without air, but only seconds without hope. IVF does not promise children; much like hope cannot promise the fulfilment of dreams. But hope can cherish desire with anticipation, ensuring dreams are never abandoned.

About the author

Shahid Mahmood was the editorial cartoonist for the national newspaper in Pakistan, Dawn. His work has appeared in numerous international publications including the Guardian, the Huffington Post and Courrier International. Shahid’s work was viewed by world leaders at the 1997 APEC Conference, enjoyed by John F. Kennedy Jr., and managed to continuously enrage Benazir Bhutto. Shahid is internationally syndicated with the New York Times Press Syndicate, has work archived at the Museum of Contemporary History in Paris, and has been designated "High-Profile” on the US Government's No-fly List.


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