Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Terry Schaivo Revisted

I know the Terry Schaivo case has mostly dropped out of sight, while the mainstream media has moved on to such earth-shattering topics as the Michael Jackson trial and the runaway bride (whose name I never learned, because I was determined to ignore the story, which seemed everywhere for a couple of days), but I ran across something in Jim's copy of First Things which is a conservative Catholic commentary magazine. They don't have this article online yet; it looks like they only put the previous month's issue up on the web, so I'll have to type the relavant quotes in here.

Remember my own commentary about the case, where I asked several questions about, if a person's spouse isn't allowed to make end-of-life decisions, then who should? I said:

It's his decision; that's the law. What kind of law would we want in its place? That feeding tubes are never disconnected even if that's what the family wants? That parents, and not spouses, are made legal guardians of completely disabled people? That a government agency makes the decision?

Well, commentator Robert T. Miller, an assistant professor of law at Villanova University has an answer for me: Nobody should be empowered to make the decision, because the decision to remove a feeding tube shouldn't ever occur.

He correctly noted that all the right-wing talk about out-of-control courts in the Schaivo case was nonsense -- the law was followed in every particular, and Terry Schaivo's legal rights were not violated in any way. This, according to Miller, is the real horror of the situation.

These quotes are from the end of his article:

In short, the courts followed the law precisely when they decided that none of Terry Schaivo's rights under the Constitution and laws of the United States had been violated. How then could the result be so unjust? The answer is perfectly simple: The laws of Florida . . . like the laws of most states expressly provide that a guardian may starve to death a ward in a persistent vegetative state . . .

Miller doesn't even want the patient themselves to have that choice through a living will. He goes on:

Laws authorizing a guardian to starve to death a ward are profoundly immoral, even as applied to those who would have wanted to die; we do not accomodate suicides.

He pointed out, as I did earlier, that the Schaivo case was only unique in that her parents' opposition to removing the feeding tube led them to take it before the media. Miller says:

But in hundreds of cases across this country every year, such laws are enforced, and hundreds of people die like Terry Schaivo. The only thing extraordinary about the Schaivo case is that her parents have done everything in their power to prevent her death, with the result that Schaivo has received much more process and much more publicity than others to whom the same thing has happened. One commentator described the Schaivo case as "the crime of the century." In fact it is a banal, run-of-the-mill crime of a kind that happens every day in the United States.

I have a certain respect for a pro-life position that insists that all life is sacred; I would hope that Miller's position on this also includes the death penalty, and the killing that occurs in war. I *don't* respect a pro-life position that weeps over expelled zygotes and patients who literally have no brain left, yet shrugs off civilian casualties in war and is downright eager to fry criminals. My own position is that the taking of life is a serious matter, and should only occur in the gravest of circumstances -- but that principle applies across the board, not in selective instances.

But the reason that it is legal for a guardian to remove a feeding tube is that this is the way most Americans want it. I've yet to meet a person over 70, whether liberal or conservative, that doesn't see a persistent vegetative state as a kind of nightmare. There's nothing more frightening to an older person, especially, than the prospect of having their mind gone: it is, for a awful lot of people, a fate worse than death. That's the whole reason the practice of making living wills has become so popular.

Now Miller can go ahead and shake his head over the sad state of a society that allows this if he wants to; that's his right as an American. But it is also the right of other Americans to make an alternative choice, and it would be very scary to live in a country where that choice was taken away.

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