June 18, 2005

Terri Schiavo Redux

Here is a brief exchange I had in STR's blog comment area on the topic of Terri Schiavo, which I thought might be worth capturing.
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Anonymous said: "She was brain dead. Her body was running on autopilot and as long as food was pumped into her she would have continued on in her vegetative state. . . .You can't just keep the bodies of dead people artificially going just because we have the technology to do it."

A tube ain't so high-tech, even here in Tennessee where I come from. It's not like she was getting cardio-pulmonary assistance.

On a higher-brow note, let's not make the mistake of thinking that a "person" is equivalent to a "brain," or that "life" is equivalent to a particular level of operational ability. That's a dangerous path to set foot upon. There was a world of difference between an animated corpse and Terri. And no matter how flattering and non-representative you think the film footage is that we had been treated to, even on its best day a corpse cannot follow balloons and smile at its mother's voice. I don't care how damaged her cranial organ happened to be or what "hope" she had of recovery; Terri was home even though the lights weren't always on.

Anonymous said: "Terri's brain had deteriorated because of the lack of oxygen it suffered at the time of the heart attack. By mid 1996, the CAT scans of her brain showed a severely abnormal structure. At this point, much of her cerebral cortex is simply gone and has been replaced by cerebral spinal fluid. Medicine cannot cure this condition. So the presence of smiles, grimaces, vocalizations, and eye movements alone is not relevant to the question of whether Schiavo has retained any degree of consciousness or may benefit from therapy."

But it is relevant to whether or not she is "alive." You seem to be equating "value" and our responsibility to care for her with an ethic that includes quality-of-life or potential for improvement. Feeding someone is not extraordinary means, and it seems reasonable to think that if all they require for continued life is a bit of food and water, then what right have we to debate over whether or not they are truly responsive or conscious or a candidate for extermination. Our thinking in such cases as this will have far-reaching impact on our culture, in this and other related issues.

Anonymous said: "I want you people to know that I completely support Melinda and the rest of you in our fight against moral wrongs like euthanasia. I just think that Terri Schiavo was a bad choice to further our cause and that spreading bad info about her and her condition (essentially gossip) does nothing to help our argument."

Perhaps some of the details are mistaken (on both sides), but our case was never dependent on whether Terri could recover or if she had a significant level of consciousness. Our point is that human life should be valued wherever it is found and at whatever level of physical or mental utility. Killing may seem an expedient and even compassionate solution in some situations, but as we are not the authors of life, so we are not the arbiters of death. Just as pro-choice advocates would like to ascribe "life" by degree, so would the death-rights advocates judge and execute "death" by degree.

Additionally, we are not materialists; we believe that there is a binary distinction between life and death that involves the "soul." If you are a materialist (or you do not believe in an "authority" which reigns over our souls), then our common cause will eventually reach its point of conflict in this debate.

Anonymous said: "So, we get to the real issue we should be discussing--aside of Terri. What are acceptable conditions for medical treatment and what should be allowable? If someone leaves their wish in writing that they do not want to be on a feeding tube or any other support under a certain set of circumstances, do we honor their wishes? What if someone comes along that says they can help rehabilitate the person? Even if this is against their wishes? . . . This should be a lesson for everyone. Put your wishes in writing and let everyone know that you have done so."

Here's an interesting question (I honestly don't know): if they were unequivocally brain-dead, would their wishes even be a factor in the equation? Was the entire debate regarding Terri only because there was doubt about the status of her "life?" The other question I have is over the issue of being able to order your own execution (verbally or in writing) in the event that things go bad. Is it morally permissible to take your own life any more than you may take someone else's? And if we admit this, just how bad may things get before we permit a mercy killing? Where will the line be drawn between suicide and death-with-dignity?

Anonymous said: "You tried to define feeding someone as not being extraordinary. The Florida courts had to follow their statutes when they decided to pull the tube from Terri. You and I agree that the feeding tube, in our opinion, is not extraordinary. However, the Florida Legislature has defined it differently. . . . Right or wrong, the courts have to follow the law."

I'm not so much concerned as to what the law says as I am about whether the laws are just, or are open to interpretive abuses.

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