Carol Platt Liebau: Thinking it through

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thinking it through

There is a lot of strong negative opinion (see here, here and even some of the comments here), out there about the actions of the U.S. Congress and the motives of those who are not content to let Terri Schiavo die without further hearings.

I can't answer for everyone else, but I can explain why I -- someone who does not necessarily think that it's always wrong to let someone die in all circumstances -- am so appalled by what's going on here.

(1) Religious issues.

As a believing Christian, I know that life is a precious gift, given by God alone. As a gift from God, and something which -- once taken -- can't be returned, life isn't something to be glossed over or thrown away lightly. As a child of God, Terri Schiavo -- brain damaged or not -- is as precious to Him as the most ethical, brilliant Nobel prize winner or the most influential theologian. Should she be allowed to die if she wants to? Of course -- that's an issue between her and God, a matter of free will (and certainly, for those capable of it, a decision that is benefited by some pretty intensive pastoral counseling before it is made). If she were capable of making the decision, would she want to die? Those who know her best disagree. And if that's the case, we shouldn't be letting Terri die without another full airing of the matter, especially given:

(2) The facts.

(a) Personal. Many who are profoundly troubled by what's going on could rest easier if Terri's interests were not being represented by her husband -- if, say, a guardian ad litem had been appointed. Perhaps it would be different if Michael Schiavo had stayed with Terri Schiavo as Dana Reeve, for example, stayed with Christopher. No one's blaming him for moving on -- it has been fifteen years, after all. But is someone who's become a husband in name only really the best choice to represent Terri? After failing to "reveal" for seven or eight years that she supposedly "wanted" to die? (If he knew and didn't tell, he's not a fit representative; if he didn't know, he's making it up now, and that's certainly not right). No one's confidence can be bolstered by the fact that Michael Schiavo has prevented Terri from receiving any kind of rehabilitation over the past several years (even if he believed she would "want" to die, as someone who loved her and presumably hoped for her full recovery, wouldn't he want her to engage in activities that would increase the odds that a miracle could happen?).

(b) Medical. What are Terri's capabilities? Medical reports conflict. Some say that she is in a persistent vegetative state, completely unaware of the world around her. Some -- like a nurse that has attended her at the hospice, speaking on Sean Hannity's radio show yesterday -- argue that she is aware of her surroundings, and can respond to others. Of course, I don't know. If she is in a persistent vegetative state, notwithstanding the slim chance that she could recover, I could live with the decision to let her die (though I think the method is barbaric -- more on that later). But if she's not in a persistent vegetative state, then we are condemning an innocent, sentient albeit brain damaged human being to a dreadful death. For those on the left, think of Christopher Reeve had he been impaired mentally as well as physically -- being deprived of food and water because he lacks the physical (or mental) capacity to make his wishes known. That prospect should be morally repugnant to everyone -- although I fear it isn't.

(3) Common humanity.

It's one thing to turn off a ventilator (where a machine is breathing artificially for a person) -- in that case, death results in a matter of minutes. It's quite another to let a woman hunger and thirst to death over a period of weeks -- a woman who otherwise would be able, most likely, to live for some years. If the "right to die" people -- including Michael Schiavo -- are so convinced that they are acting in accordance with Terri's wishes, why should they object to making her death more humane, say, by giving her some morphine (note: this is theoretical -- and only after all appeals are exhausted; please, let's give Terri the same rights as convicted killers)? It seems like the basest hypocrisy to argue that you're not "killing" someone by refusing to give a disabled person food and water (again, think of Christopher Reeve sitting in his wheelchair, staring at a table full of food, but powerless to feed himself). At this point, the line between "letting" someone die and "helping" (or forcing them to) die is almost meaningless, anyway. As I've asked before -- under this reasoning, can we say we've "abolished" the death penalty, and simply lock death row convicts away without food and water? After all, like in the Schiavo case, we wouldn't be "killing" them. We'd just be "letting them die."

(4) Legal.

As I've written below, I'm incredulous: How could one district judge and two appeals court judges ignore with such impunity the clear intent of Congress as expressed in a statute and also thereafter? You can agree or disagree with what Congress did, but as long as there's legislation on the matter -- and that legislation is constitutional -- then the courts must honor Congress' will and intent.

I know there are many people out there of good conscience who disagree with me. They deeply believe that Terri Schiavo should simply die because that's what she wanted. And maybe they're right. But no one can be utterly sure what Terri would have wanted in this particular circumstance -- and when there's uncertainty, shouldn't we err (if err we must) on the side of life, at lest while some of the most troubling issues are addressed?


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