Sunday, March 20, 2005

Terri Schiavo

Usually I don't blog about national issues because I don't have anything to add to them that someone a lot smarter than I am hasn't said already.

But some of my friends in the Greensboro blogopolis are quite heated up about the intervention of the U. S. Congress in the Terri Schiavo case, and I felt the need to say something in response to them. I don't think I will change any minds about what to do with Terri, but I'd like them to think about a few things.

First, here's what my friends are saying. My neighbor David Hoggard says,

This whole thing sickens me.
He goes on to quote former Greensboro N&R political writer Alex Wayne who says,
Quite frankly, these people give Christianity a bad name. And if I were a Christian moderate -- is there such a thing anymore? -- I'd be pretty damn concerned, and I'd be pretty damn loud about it.
Sue of Southern Rants, says in David's comments,
You know, I know, we all know, this has nothing to do with poor Terry Schiavo or her much-maligned husband who's carrying out her wishes. It has to do with politics stepping into the bedroom (again) and sucking up to "pro-life" groups who don't really care about this particular life but just want their names in the paper on what they perceive as the correct side of this horrible issue.
Unlike Sue, I don't really know anything about the motives of Terri's husband, or her parents, or of the judges who've made decisions in the case, or of the individual legislators in Florida and Washington, or of the people who are protesting & praying on both sides of the issue, and I don't see how we can know those motives clearly, and in any case they don't particularly affect the question of what to do about Terri.

I do know that Terri is extremely brain-damaged, and according to the informative website that David linked, medical experts disagree on whether Terri has a little of her cerebral cortex left, or none. The fact that a court has ruled that she has none is, to me, not any more dispositive than is the fact that Congress has voted the other way. Her parents believe she is sometimes responsive; her husband does not. In short, there is doubt about her mental state and abilities. She does not appear to be unconscious. Her husband says she would wish to die under such circumstances; her parents say she would not. There is no documentary evidence for either position.

In such a case, the argument for euthanasia (for that is what death by starvation and dehydration is) must amount to something like, though we cannot be entirely sure of what her inner life is like, both her present quality of life and her chances of improvement seem so minimal, that it is morally acceptable to deprive her of them.

You don't have to be a fundamentalist (which I'm not) to have serious ethical problems with that. It presupposes that the value of being human derives solely from some -- as yet vaguely specified -- inventory of cognitive or physical capacities. And I don't accept that. Even if I did, I wouldn't be sure that Terri would qualify for euthanasia by starvation, which is quite painful. You can go to jail for doing that to a dog.

As my wife said to me, if you're going to make a mistake in this case, why not err on the side of life? Especially since Terri's parents seem willing to carry that burden. In this light, the question of the husband's marital rights seems weak, unless one wishes to assert that it is within the husband's rights to decide such a life-and-death issue when the facts are in doubt, as ancient Roman husbands did. (Talk about "turning back the clock" . . .)

Finally, I can't stop myself from remarking on some of Alex Wayne's comments about a photo of people praying for Terri. He said,
But pictures like this one scare me. I see Christian fundamentalism on the rise in this country, influencing all sorts of public policy debates, and I wonder if it's not much less dangerous than the rise of Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere in the world. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, no matter whom you pray to.
The woman in the photo is holding a rosary, indicating that she's Catholic. CouldAlex not know that, not only are Catholics not fundamentalists, but that many Christian fundamentalists are actually hostile to Catholicism? But, given that, what would Alex think of a rosary-wielding woman in prayer in front of a prison protesting a state execution? How about those Dominican nuns who were imprisoned for protesting nuclear weapons? Dominicans pray the rosary every day. Are they, too, scary like fundamentalists?

But, even if the woman in the photo were a fundamentalist, if Alex can't see the vast chasm between people of faith using their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to ask a democratically-elected government to intervene in saving the life of a hapless woman (whether wisely or not), and religious fanatics using violence to destroy governments and kill thousands of innocent civilians, well . . . I'm just speechless. Did he think about what he was writing for even one second?


alex said...

David, thanks for the link. I anticipated reaction like this from some quarter when I made the post. Obviously the two scenarios you describe aren't morally or logically comparable. My point, perhaps poorly made, was that it's a morally slippery slope from what these people are advocating to a society not unlike those of Islamic fundamentalist states.

I didn't notice that the woman was holding a rosary, but I don't think it's relevant. I don't see how being Catholic, in and of itself, prevents one from also being a fundamentalist.

D. Hoggard said...

From what I have read, Terri has the mental capacity of an 11 month old so all of the reactions you described are as real, as they would be with any healthy 11 month old. She said to her husband she wouldn't want to live in such a state.

The process HAS been erring on the side of life for 15 years and everytime the ruling has deemed her husband's claim for Terri's wishes as being valid.

The bill passed in Congress is just plain bad legislation.

Roch101 said...

As someone who can usually eventually come to a conclusion on issues of this sort, I'm stymied. Being so, I won't blather on about why each side of this issue has its presuasive core arguments and plenty of extraneous garbage. But, here's an opinion opposite of Wharton's (via Jay Ovittore) that makes some good points too. (Warning: profanity.)

Roch101 said...

Question, David: You set up a supposition of what the argument for letting Shiavo die must be. I'm not familiar enough with the details of her diagnosis to know if your framing of the opposing position is accurate or a straw man. But, let's grant it as accurate for the moment and move to your counter point. Specifically:

"It presupposes that the value of being human derives solely from some -- as yet vaguely specified -- inventory of cognitive or physical capacities."

If one finds that definition of the value of human live innadequate, what is the proper definition?

Anonymous said...

For those of us with an interest in constitutional law and separation of powers, the question is whether it is the proper role of the legislative branch (at either the state or federal level) to craft remedies for specific situations. The legislature usually answers the broader questions, such as when in all cases it is appropriate to remove a feeding tube, and it does not address whether it is appropriate to remove the tube for person X. That is a question for the courts, to address specific cases. Here the legislatures of Fla. and now Congress are overstepping their authority. That balance of powers question has less emotional appeal, but it is a very important question.

Kathy Davis said...

As to the issue of Christian fundamentalism, extremist religion, be it christian, jewish, muslim or hindu breeds political extremism. It's the rise of religious extremism that has infected all sects within christianity (note the torrid debates with the Catholic, Episcopal and Baptist churches), and has become politicized by those opportunists who see money and power as a result. It is impossible to make a judgement about Terry Schiavo's individual case within this supercharged atmosphere.

As to separation of powers, Bill Frist is notorious for using Congress to push silly agendas, including legislation to make illegal any effort to prohibit a federal agency from giving financial support to the Boy Scouts of America because of the religious oath it gives its members. Now his website is full of self-congratulatory statements about Terry Schiavo. Is there no end to this blatant hucksterism?

Rustam Sheridan said...

I think it's sad that the words "fundamentalism" and "extremism" are such dirty words now. If you're fundamental or extreme about something, that's a good thing IMO. The problem isn't fundamentalism/extremism: it's with initiating force to make others adapt to your fundamentalism/extremism.

I'm a fundamentalist Christian and am extremely for freedom. But that doesn't make me a terrorist, or even a bad person, because my faith and my actions are mine alone.

Anonymous said...

David, I'm going to quote: "Unlike Sue, I don't really know anything about the motives of Terri's husband, or her parents, or of the judges who've made decisions in the case, or of the individual legislators in Florida and Washington, or of the people who are protesting & praying on both sides of the issue, and I don't see how we can know those motives clearly, and in any case they don't particularly affect the question of what to do about Terri."

I don't think that's fair. I don't purport to know what her parents' or husbands' motives are. I spoke about the legislators that were intruding into an issue that should remain within a marriage (the "defense of marriage act" springs to mind) and they are doing exactly what legislators should NOT do; that is, create law based on a single individual's situation that they don't agree with.

Rhis isn't a matter for courts; this is a family, private matter. I was caregiver for two catastrophically ill parents and I have participated in what to do conversations that became so routine, they were dinner talk. Given these circumstances, I've made it clear to my husband, kids, sister and best friends what I want. To think that Congress could overrule that if one of the above got cold feet at the final moment sickens me.

David Wharton said...

Wow. Thanks for all your comments. Responding in reverse order to those that need a response . . .

Sue, I think I was mostly fair. You didn't comment on Terri's parents' motives, but you actually did so (explicitly or implicitly) regarding those of her husband, the legislators, and the protesters. I, too, am wary of federal intervention, but find myself profoundly uneasy with the decision to starve Terri to death.

Michael, I'm unsure what "torrid debates" you're referring to. Debate is part of all social groups, religious or otherwise. It's not necessarily a sign of extremism, just principle. We're having one now, and it's good.

Roch asks the hardest question. I was attempting to reject a purely utilitarian understanding of human value, under which the deformed or disabled are less valued than the fully-functional. Clearly some potential for cognition must be present in order for someone to be considered human, and therefore intrinsically valuable, and I believe even those who are minimally functioning deserve our love and care, though it can be monstrously difficult to give it to them. I am awed by Terri's parents willingness to do this.

Alex, you may be right in your understanding of "fundamentalism," as your usage seems to line up with the definitions developed by Martin Marty and other scholars of religion. Maybe a Catholic could be a fundamentalist.

But I prefer to limit the term to a particular strain of American Protestantism, because I think the broader use, in Mary's formulation, encompasses the majority of all religions, and hence is not very informative.

In today's Wall Street Journal, James Q. Wilson has written a piece that states my views better than I could have done. You may be able to read it here:

Chewie said...

Ergh. Blogger killed my earlier pass at this.

David, I for one would welcome more commentary from you on national and international issues. Your thoughtfulness on this subject and the discussion that ensued helped me work through my own conflicted views.

Perhaps someone could point me to some discussion on this point. Could Terri's husband not yield his rights to her parents, given his view that she is vegetative and therefore not capable of suffering, and given their willingness to continue to care for her? I have not heard discussion of this compromise, and am wondering why.

Kathy Davis said...

My comment about 'torrid debates' warrants some clarification. I am an Episcopalian. Within the Episcopal Church there are some whose extreme stand on biblical fundamentalism has torn the church apart, resulting in a literal schism within the church. What started as a reform movement generally accepted by all burst apart last year with the consecration of a homosexual bishop. Right wing factions within the church were unwilling to open dialog, a move unprecedented within our church, and instead simply packed up and went their separate ways. In one radical gesture, the right wing destroyed a community that had existed for hundreds of years (of course, from their point of view, the left wing did the same thing).

All of this is to point out that there are no longer shared grounds on which compromises can be struck in many of our churches and synagogues. We are so polarized that community cannot be attained. Without community, the function of religion (as opposed to faith) loses its meaning for many.

For me, David, the 'sin', if you will, of religious extremism, is the inability for many of our conservative christian friends to be inclusive when thinking about God and who can worship Him. Take a look at the post on Ed Cone's blog about the church in Charlotte. The members of that church have decided that they cannot help the Charlotte Rescue Mission because a few Muslims helped volunteer there. They have set themselves up as judge, not only of those few Muslim students, but by extension the hundreds that are served by the mission.

Once you set yourself up as a judge of who can be sanctified in the eyes of God, it is just a small step in logic to become judge and jury over many other aspects of human life, resulting, in extremis, in a Taliban-like society. Is that what we want? That, I fear, is where we are heading.

Anonymous said...

"Could Terri's husband not yield his rights to her parents.... I have not heard discussion of this compromise, and am wondering why."

Her husband's position is that she previously expressed the desire not to be kept alive by artificial means. Though this has been disputed by her parents and others, the courts have consistently upheld Mr. Schiavo's assertion. Therefore, transferring guardianship to her parents would satisfy her parents' wishes, but not her's.

Juan Vasquez said...

by their fruits you shall know them in 1999 bush had a chance to weigh in on this issue by picking up his veto pen but he in fact signed the Texas Futile Care Law law in Texas that expressly gave hospitals the right to remove life support if the patient could not pay and there was no hope of revival, regardless of the patient's family's wishes. Under this law, a baby was removed from life support against his mother's wishes in Texas just this week. (source dailykos)