March 22, 2005

Schiavoan Rhetoric

I know that everyone is throwing in their two cents on the Terri Schindler Schiavo case, but I can't resist offering my own responses to some of the most frequent statements I hear from those in support of the removal of her feeding tube.

"She's being kept alive artificially. She should just be allowed to die in peace"

First of all, she's not on "life support." She's just being fed with a tube, and even that was inserted originally as a time-saving measure. Being kept alive "artificially" involves cardio-pulmonary assistance and tends to be reserved for flat-line cases (i.e., the brain-dead or comatose). Terri is still there; she's just seriously mentally disabled. She's not "dying" any more than you or I; she's just being provided with basic nourishment, which she has limitations on providing for herself. To remove this and let her die "naturally" would the functional (and moral) equivalent of withholding sustenance from an infant or a paraplegic, who are also dependant on such care. We have a name for such treatment: it's called "criminal neglect." As far as dying "in peace," well, I've never heard starvation and dehydration put in such genial terms, but I suppose by "peace" they really mean "lack of public protest."

"She's in a vegetative state, if she's not going to get any better then..."

I think the persistent vegetative state (PVS) assessment has been highly overrated, but I guess you can use that label however you like if you simply define your criteria to suit your target diagnosis. The question is: even if Terri could make some progress (and there is good reason to think she might) does it really matter if she doesn't get any better? Is it only those with a certain "quality of life" whose lives we care about? If human life, in general, is intrinsically valuable, then there's never a person so broken that they fail to warrant basic care and compassion. And where is the virtue of compassion ever expressed if not toward those with a (temporarily or permanently) diminished "quality of life." Was Dr. Frederick Treves a hero or a villain for caring for Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) rather than letting him "die in peace" in that Liverpool train station? If we begin to measure life by its "quality," then heaven help our infirm elderly and the "imperfect" children of the future. Of course, this would all be spun as acts of compassion. "We just want to spare them their misery," they shall say. I think it turns out less to be a desire to put them out of their misery and more a matter of putting them out of ours. Our "quality of life" is surely much better without being burdened by the clinical outcasts of society. For gosh sakes, we hardly have the patience to listen to our elders discuss the mundane aches and pains of normal aging.

"Would you want to live like that?"

Of course not, but that's not the point. I wouldn't want to live on food stamps or in Greenland, but that doesn't mean you should kill me! The question is: if you were in that condition what would be the right thing to do? In Terri's case, terminating her life is not just "letting her die," but is, rather, an aggressive act of withholding basic care (food & water). So if we were to agree that this should be done to us, then we are sanctioning, in effect, our own suicide. Now, it may be a suicide with more "justification" than most, but it would be suicide nonetheless. And if you're good with suicide for a Shiavoan hardship case, what justification would you have for denying it to someone whose "quality of life" is diminished by a lost love or a failed career? If we're going to go this route, why aren't we debating over making lethal medications available for such cases? I think it is because if we were arguing over whether or not to give Terri the Kool-Aid, we'd see a big shift in the poll results on this issue. But be assured, this level of debate is the next thing on the public horizon.

As an interesting aside, I think most who are on the side of terminating Terri's life happen to be against the death penalty, which is odd because not only have these inmates forfeit their lives by virtue of their crimes (Terri is innocent remember), but their "quality of life" is unquestionably compromised. Let's not be selective about our view of the sanctity of life.

"Just let her die with dignity"

Again, I don't find starvation to be a very "dignified" way out. And if we are concerned with preserving the "dignity" of people, then we may as well start crafting our "Logan's Run" society right now. Remember this old movie where people were exterminated once they reached the ripe old age of 30? Dignity is an awful subjective thing, but I'll lay odds that it won't be the individual making the ultimate assessment of what is "dignified" enough to survive the culling of the herds. And those who are the prime candidates for such things don't tend to make it to the voting booths anyways.

Another thing about "dignity" is that it implies some intrinsic value to human life for which we should have concern for its dignity. But "intrinsic worth" plays against the idea that humans may be killed for reasons of inconvenience or hardship. Life is full of indignities that must be suffered along the way. Such is the nature of life, and, indeed, such may be an essential ingredient to the very point of life.

"Trying to keep her alive is playing God"

This is the strangest statement of all. As I've pointed out above, she's not "dying," so nobody is trying to stand in the way of a natural dying process. That's really the only situation in which this statement could hope to make sense. It seems more reasonable to assume that killing someone is "playing God." If this were not so, then we would be forced to believe that every time a doctor removes a tumor or a mother breast feeds her hungry infant they are "playing God." And as for what God might be "playing" in this case, I'm inclined to think that if He wanted Terri dead He'd have taken her down some 15 years ago. Am I to believe that He botched the job and needs the help of her apathetic husband? Now, which God are we talking about here?

For more in-depth reading on this topic, see these excellent blog entries at Stand To Reason:
Would you want to live that way? (part 1)
Does Terri have a right to die? (part 2)
Is a feeding tube extraordinary means? (part 3)



At 3/24/2005 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I think about these statements being presented by so many people across the board, it is very hard not to get discouraged. This kind of thinking is so pervasive and so deeply ingrained in our culture I wonder just how bad it will get before it gets better. People just can't follow through with the logical conclusions of the way they are thinking.
You did a great job of disecting them .
By the way , anybody who has links to STR, RTB and lives in the Bible Belt is definitley an oddity . I attend Hope Presbyterian in Memphis and I feel like a black sheep when I discuss the age of the earth or the reasons to why our culture has become what it is to anyone I know at Hope. It's like they're stuck in an assumed way of thinking and they can't see it.
Nothing more important to do but to press on though.


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