My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

More Schiavo

The post on Terry Shiavo provoked so much response from people that I feel like milking it some more. Nothing like the suffering of others to drum up attention for yourself and your ideas. Just ask Tom DeLay.

So I'm going to bring you a few thoughts from other people. I don't necessarily agree with these thoughts, I just thought they were well written.

Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune:

The Schiavo case is only slightly more consequential [than the flap over University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek]. A few people--the woman and her family--will feel a direct impact whichever way it goes. But for the rest of us who have never met or seen the main players, this, too, is just another skirmish in the culture war.

One side sees those who want her feeding tube pulled as part of a larger, secularist effort to undermine the religious notion that human life itself is, without qualification, uniquely sacred. A denial of that absolute truth leads the way toward utilitarian policies--laws based on ever-changing evaluations of what works--and erodes the legitimacy of moral policies--laws based on what's objectively and eternally right.

The other side sees those who want to keep Schiavo alive despite her wretched, unconscious existence as fundamentalist control freaks. They see them making a fetish of all human life-forms down to tiny clumps of embryonic stem cells primarily because the idea of absolute and transcendent truth is a lever used by those who claim to know it to impose their religious values on society.
I think he's right in analyzing the debate, that two politicized groups in society are arguing about the case only in terms of their broader social agendas, without much concern for the actual people involved. But there are real poeople involved, and there are real, complicated ethical issues to deal with surrounding the end of life: issues which can't be boiled down to blather about "rights" or "sacredness." Real life is more complicated than ideology. The people who have to make these kinds of decisions (and someday that's likely to be most of us) find them agonizing to make and often difficult to live with.

John Kass, also of the Chicago Tribune:

And now she has new champions who are comfortable with words like fetus and viability. Some use Schiavo to ridicule people of faith. Others use her to argue that only those who want Schiavo's death are her real supporters. By this reasoning, if you don't want her dead, then you don't really love her. But this is love as mercy killing. It is by this love that the state allows the killing of unborn babies. It is by this love that the state gives permission to kill the infirm.

I'd rather consider a photograph of Terri and her parents, her mother stroking her face, and Terri's eyes looking up at her, almost smiling, perhaps involuntarily. Perhaps she feels nothing, but her parents feel it. They want to care for her and should be allowed to. But the law says no, the state has decreed, and hands are clean.

I wouldn't want to live that way. And I'm writing something down to inform my wife that if I am ever like that, they should let me die. But there was nothing in writing for Terri. And her parents want to care for her. Still, she's being killed.

For Kass, much of this is tied up in his anti-abortion stance. But not all of it. He admits he wouldn't want to live as a vegetable, but is frightened by the prospect that she (or he, presumably) might be "put down" by someone acting in her name but not in accord with her true wishes, while she is incapacitated. I share this fear, and sympathize. But I'm not sure why he believes the parents and not the husband. People seem to be assuming that whoever is taking the same side they are taking must be telling the truth. There is no rational reason to believe that's the case. I don't know any of these people, do you? For what it's worth, I'm sure my wife would better know my wishes than my father would. In fact I'd bet on it.

I'm not sure Kass understands the implications of her family "wanting to care for her." I think they can't let go of her and want to keep having her in their lives in some form. She may not be there anymore, but they are not perpared to deal with it. Their stance seems to have more to do with their emotional needs than with their daughter's - I doubt she has any.

Garret Keizer in Harpers:

Assuming that one’s life might be taken as the most private of all forms of property, one might also assume that the option for assisted suicide would resonate most powerfully with conservatives. But to make that assumption would give too much weight to ideology and too little to the psychology that informs it. The right talks about protecting life and tradition, but on some level—the level, let’s say, where someone like Dr. [Lloyd] Thompson is held up for derision—it is mostly interested in protecting pain. For two reasons.

The first is theological: the belief that pain holds the meaning of life. Supposedly, and demonstrably, this is a Christian idea, though if Jesus himself had believed it, he would have told the lepers to find meaning in their sores. The fact is, with even a little encouragement, most lepers do. This explains the conundrum so perplexing to the liberal mind: why hard-pressed people can vote against their own interests in support of someone like George W. Bush. How can they not see? In fact, they do see; they see from the same point of view that has led them to believe that the misery of their lives is the foundation of their integrity.

The second reason, which can always be counted on to exploit the first, is political: the belief that pain is fundamental to justice, which makes perfect sense if justice is conceived as nothing more than a system of punishments and rewards. The essence of punishment is pain. Whoever owns pain owns power.

The suicide, the mystic, the woman who seeks an abortion, the cancer patient who smokes a joint (the cancer patient’s long-suffering lover who smokes a joint)—all are roundly condemned for their escape from “responsibility” but truly feared for their escape from jurisdiction. It is a fear with a long and traceable history. The Roman emperor Tarquin crucified the bodies of citizens who committed suicide in order to escape his tyranny. When Margaret Sanger began her campaign for birth control, she was accused of permitting women to escape their God-ordained sorrow in bearing children.

As I've stated elsewhere, I don't buy the "life as private property" line. For one thing, to an agnostic such as myself, there can be no distinction between you and your life. Since I haven't seen any evidence of a separate soul, I'm working on the assumption that the death of the body is the end. So we're not talking about something you own, we're talking about you. The destruction of the self is something that should be avoided in most situations, even if it requires physically restraining people to keep them from harming themselves.

End of life issues are different, however, in that death is immanent no matter what is done, so it becomes a question of how to die, rather then whether to die. This is a more complicated question. Clearly the last few minutes of agonizing pain are worth less than other minutes in many circumstances. Even more clear is the case of the unconscious person who has no chance of regaining consciousness. If no more of life is going to be experienced by someone, in some way isn't that person already "dead?"

I do believe that these decisions should be made by dying people, their families, and their doctors. But we must be very careful to allow this in a very narrow, specific set of circumstances so as not to blur the issue of suicide in general. Most suicide is the result of mental illness - depression is a disease, with a biological basis, just like cancer or anything else. Talking about the "right to die" of a depressed person is just as inane and Orwellian as the "right to die" of an AIDS patient - both would prefer to live and be healthy, to the extent that such is possible. So we cannot change the legal structure in such a way as to prevent law enforcement from intervening in suicide attempts. Such a policy would be criminal negligence, and an affront to human dignity. And you know Tom DeLay would have a field day with it. So let's just not go there.

Still, I find Keizer's discussion of the motives behind the Right's extroardinary efforts here to be very interesting. Suffering can be enobling. It can be transformative, in fact, if faced with the proper perspective. But Congressional Republicans should remember that people are rarely grateful when you force it on them.

2 comments:

Stockton&Tweed said...

I'm not clear why you answered in the negative my last question. And so I put it again - why shouldn't someone have the right to determine that her or his life is not worth living? I'm not suggesting a free-for-all. It is an important decision. But isn't someone's psychological welfare important as well? If I know I'm going to die within a few weeks, why shouldn't I be allowed to plan for and orchestrate my own demise? Why is that so horrible? I understand the suicide point - and it's a good one that all the right-to-die people should keep in mind.

There's also a matter of fundamental fairness here: I didn't choose to enter this world (at least I don't think I did); but shouldn't I be able to choose to leave?

Like one of the quoted columnists, I'm uncomfortable with the Schiavo case because of the lack of written instructions. There is a solemnity (or should be) in properly documenting those sorts of wishes - a solemnity which should prompt careful thought. I'm uncomfortable with finding those wishes expressed in conversations.

Tweed

Stockton&Tweed said...

I'm not clear why you answered in the negative my last question. And so I put it again - why shouldn't someone have the right to determine that her or his life is not worth living? I'm not suggesting a free-for-all. It is an important decision. But isn't someone's psychological welfare important as well? If I know I'm going to die within a few weeks, why shouldn't I be allowed to plan for and orchestrate my own demise? Why is that so horrible? I understand the suicide point - and it's a good one that all the right-to-die people should keep in mind.

There's also a matter of fundamental fairness here: I didn't choose to enter this world (at least I don't think I did); but shouldn't I be able to choose to leave?

Like one of the quoted columnists, I'm uncomfortable with the Schiavo case because of the lack of written instructions. There is a solemnity (or should be) in properly documenting those sorts of wishes - a solemnity which should prompt careful thought. I'm uncomfortable with finding those wishes expressed in conversations.

Tweed