Okay, one post, but I’m still on vacation, dammit.
The Terry Schiavo case is tailor made for the media—full of emotions to exploit. The problem, really, is that it’s not possible for an honest person to hate either side. It’s easy to sympathize with the parents in their dream that somehow their daughter will revive after 15 years. It’s easy to sympathize with the husband, who knew her best, and whose statement that Schiavo would not want to have lived this way has never been adequately rebutted. (There are some folks who have charged that the husband has ulterior motives in the case, or even that his oversight has been negligent or even abusive. This seems really sleazy to me, and not deserving of a response.)
I don’t understand why the husband’s word isn’t final. One of the big reasons for getting married is to have a partner who can speak for you when you are unable to speak. And these are precisely the kinds of things that people talk about with their spouses. Erin and I have had that conversation, and she has told me in no uncertain terms that she would not want to be kept alive on a machine like this; I have said the same thing to her. Once we are married, my word in such a situation ought to be final, and vice versa.
Conservatives who speak so highly of “saving” the Holy Institution of Marriage, seem to ignore this principle. They, of course, see this as the husband actually trying to kill the wife—and of course, they would say that a husband’s ability to make decisions for an incapacitated spouse don’t rise to the level of committing what they see as murder. But that response ignores the fact that this issue is just the sort of thing we have spouses for. If these conservatives were to have their way, what would we do with incapacitated spouses who express their desire not to be kept on machines? Require that they remain on life support machinery indefinitely? That would vastly increase the potential costs of marriage, and would therefore deter marriage, if nothing else. Mostly, it would interfere greatly in one of the most private, personal family issues that there are. That fact also doesn’t seem to bother conservatives as much as it ought to.
On the other hand, I think we ought not say things like “Congress is engaged in shameless grandstanding.” This is true only to the level that everything politicians do is grandstanding. But if Terry Schiavo really would have wanted to remain on life support in the hope that she might revive, and if she really were capable of being revived—two propositions for which there is apparently no evidence—then there is nothing wrong with the government seeking to protect her from what some have likened to a state-imposed death penalty. If her Fourteenth Amendment rights to life and liberty are threatened by state action, Congress has the legitimate authority to intervene.
(In my opinion, there is only one group that is engaged in shameless grandstanding on this issue, and that is some religious people. Religious views, even within the Catholic Church are divided on the issue, but those who claim that removing the feeding tube is a violation of her dignity, or an interference with Divine Will are perverting both of those concepts. Divine Will is, of course, insusceptible of human understanding, but, generally speaking, I always thought people who believed that there was such a Thing saw human medical intervention—which in this case is the very opposite of dignified—as an interference with that Will, which expresses Itself in the tendencies of nature. We’re told, for instance, that it is Divine Will that men and women be married, rather than men and men, because that is the tendency of nature; and that it is the Divine Will that a person bleed when cut and laugh when tickled, because that is the tendency of nature. The tendency of Terry Schiavo’s nature is to die. Intervention here would seem to be interference with Divine Will, and thus sinful. I admit, I’m not an expert on Divine Will like the Pope claims to be, but there does appear to be an inconsistency here. Mostly it looks like grandstanding to me that, on the basis of fancy robes and a historical tradition, some guy in Rome would claim the authority to say just how The Master of The Universe Himself would want this case to come out. Speaking for God, particularly in a matter like this, seems to me to be the Ultimate in shameless grandstanding. I would think that the statements of Medina Estevez, senior deacon of the Catholic Church, are much more respectful of the alleged Divine Order: “When there is a real hope for recovery, then yes, you can make extraordinary efforts.... But you must consider the proportion. Rather than speak of extraordinary or ordinary measures, it is preferable to speak of means that are proportionate or disproportionate to the results and quality of life." But this does not appear to be the Pope’s position.)
Liberals, on the other hand, should not be patting themselves on the back for their intellectual consistency, either. The Democrats in Congress have been more or less silent on this matter, with the exception of Ted Kennedy, so far as I know. They’re scared of the Theocrat vote, with little reason, if the polls are to be believed. They ought to say that this is none of the government’s business. But then, liberals don’t think anything is none of the government’s business, and what have they done for the past seventy (or 150) years, except to say that people ought to be forced to receive sustenance?
The main problem is the—I’m sorry, no other word works—absurd idea that Terry Schiavo is ever going to recover; indeed the use of the word “life” in connection with her is fallacious. Terry Schiavo is not alive. She has not been alive for fifteen years. The machinery of her body is functioning—but that is not life. Life, for human beings at least, means some degree of consciousness. I think conservatives ignore that fact because to them, the mechanical operations of the body are life. I’ve posted before about how conservatives see the possession of DNA—and not the possession of a mind—as the definition of human life, and how strange this is, coming from people who complain about the allegedly cold, inhuman nature of secular materialism.
The attempts by some to claim that the mechanical reactions of her body indicate that she still has some consciousness are understandable—in some videotapes, she appears to move her eyes, blink, even smile. But the doctors, who know a lot more than radio talk show hosts about the functioning of the human mind and body, say that these are mere physical reactions. Nobody has ever recovered from the condition Terry Schiavo is in. Never. Not once. Ever. She is dead.
Let us suppose, however, that she is not. Let us suppose that her mind survives, that she is conscious, but inside of a body that is incapable of responding to her consciousness.* She can hear and understand everything and can perceive everything her eyes happen to focus on. After fifteen years trapped in such a cage, she would be at least insane—if not insane, she would be so horribly depressed that it is impossible for me to imagine her wanting to remain on a feeding tube. What if she is screaming inside “let me go”? Would that make any difference? All of the evidence so far indicates that, were her consciousness still in existence—which, I hasten to repeat, it is not—that that is just what she would be screaming.
When people complain that starving her to death is cruel, though, they are partly right. But it is the only alternative precisely because conservatives have managed to close the door to the possibility of human euthanasia. This case is the perfect one for human euthanasia. That’s a scary concept, but I think this case makes clear that there are at least some cases where it would be the truly merciful thing. Again, it’s understandable that people would hold out hope that she would somehow revive, or that technology would improve to enable us to reach her. But that won’t happen. Even if technology suddenly improved—she isn’t there anymore. And that’s the other thing: because she isn’t there anymore, she isn’t capable of suffering in the sense that you and I know. If, as all the evidence indicates, her consciousness does not exist, and only the machinery is going in her body, she is not capable of imagining an alternative, or wishing for it, or experiencing pain—so far as we know. The merciful thing—to the parents, to the husband, no less than to Terry herself—would be to let her go as quickly as possible.
Anyway, there’s no organization to these thoughts. Mostly I wish people would think about this rationally, rather than letting themselves portray the opposite side as cruel or thoughtless. Mostly, I wish people would stop demonizing the husband. I can too easily put myself in his position—with the whole world seemingly against you, as you try to make The Hardest Decision of All, in carrying out what your wife wanted. I wish that I—I wish that we all—might have the perseverance and the dedication to principle that he has shown, in carrying out that duty if and when the time comes—a duty that all husbands and all wives take on as part of their vows.
One more thing: we should be extremely proud of Judge Whittemore—even, if they think about it, the other side. His dedication to the rule of law, and his refusal to be swayed by the immense political pressure placed on him by Congress, the media, and the conservatives, is truly a testament to the integrity of the judiciary. I am very proud of the profession when I think that there are still people with that sort of integrity on the bench.
*-Note: I actually have committed a logical contradiction here. If her body is incapable of responding to her consciousness, then she would not be capable of “seeing” or “hearing” anything, since the phenomenon of sense is not a mere act of passive perception, but is a creative act by the consciousness in conjunction with the body. Objectivists refer to this contradiction as the “mind-body dichotomy,” but it springs from what Daniel Dennett has more agreeably termed the “Cartesian Theater”: the idea that the mind is a little guy inside a theater receiving information from the eyes and ears. That is not how the mind works. If her body is truly severed from her mind, then Terry Schiavo has no mind left.
Update: There are two sentences in the dissenting Judge’s opinion which I think really capture the flaws in the parents’ argument: “I fail to see any harm in reinstating the feeding tube. On the other hand, a denial of the request for injunction will result in the death of Theresa Schiavo” (at 19). In my view, these statements are completely backwards.
If, as her husband says, Terry Schiavo expressed her desire not to be kept on machinery for fifteen years, then reinstating the feeding tube is the injury—it is a violation of her right to determine the course of her life, and thus by extension, a violation of her right to life. (This may seem paradoxical, but it is not a contradiction. The right to life means that your life belongs to you and that you may do with it what you will. To force-feed Schiavo contrary to her wishes is therefore to deprive her of that right—to, in a manner of speaking, steal her life and make it someone else’s: namely, her parents’. But her life belonged to her, not to her parents, and she had the right to decide what to do with that life. All the evidence heard by all the courts substantiates the husband’s claim—and again, it ought to be his call, as husband—that she did not want to be force-fed.)
As to the second sentence, denial of the injunction would not result in the death of Theresa Schiavo in any meaningful sense. She died fifteen years ago. The machinery of her body has been kept going by artificial means, but everything that makes her who she was is gone, and has been gone for a long time. Again, what makes us exist as human beings is not the machinery of our bodies, but our minds. Obviously the law has mechanical criteria for defining life, but in the larger sense in which Judge Wilson purports to speak, Terry Schiavo has been dead for a long time.