Thursday, March 24, 2005

This will likely be my last Schiavo post

In this situation, many people are anecdotally applying their own instances of removing someone from life support who was terminally ill or in tremendous pain. These circumstances, while tragic themselves, are not true of Terri Schiavo.

People are casting those who support Terri's life as the "religious right." I'm not a member of any political organization and I consider myself more libertarian than anything else. I'm disheartened that more libertarians don't see my position as supportive of free will, being cynical of a single man's uncorroborated hearsay as evidence of intent, and paying more attention to the evidence of the life lived. I choose to err on the side of preserving not only her unique right to exist, but also her opportunity to thrive under the auspices of those who promise (as Michael Schiavo did before the cash award) the best technological assistance we can give her. I think the quality of her future remains unknown through neglect.

Many people (bloggers especially) that I respect say that Congress was wrong to intervene and ask for a review of the facts. Most of these people are also lawyers and may have a greater appreciation for the fundamental construction of the system than I can in this instance. Justice is the goal of our legal system if not always the result. States' rights versus federal powers has to be another check-and-balance arrangement to guarantee neither abuses its authority at the expense of the citizens. Congress asked for review of the case, but did not legislate a conclusion. The legal arena seems offended, but Congress represents the wishes of the people and their demands are as fundamentally Constitutional as the judicial branch's purview in interpreting the laws.

My twin concerns are that 1) Terri's true condition has yet to be assessed using the prevailing medical technology for the diagnosis and 2) her husband, who is inarguably a financially interested party with no outward observance of the marital bond that gives him his moral authority, is the sole witness to her alleged statement that she'd wish to die.

What puny legal perspective I have says that accepting a single person's hearsay evidence as fact in a life or death case where there is considerable disagreement about the claims isn't justice. My thinking is that denying a disabled woman current diagnostic and rehabilitative therapies isn't good guardianship of her interests.

And the coverage of her condition is as flawed as her care. Newsweek has an entire article with a Jesuit bioethicist who claims that the Pope's statements on denying food and water have been misconstrued and that the Pontiff was just playing to the crowd.

Here's my problem with this travesty. The Vatican's own bioethicist, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, is tersely excerpted in direct contradiction of the opinions of the interviewed subject. Wouldn't this guy be the right source for the Church's opinion? Instead, our interviewee- not a designated advocate of the Church's position, but a guy teaching at Boston College, that august institution of intellectual firepower- gets his picture posted and two pages for his opinions. It's telling that he believes the best understanding of this situation is gleaned from the writings of ... Aquinas, Papal edicts, Jesus himself? No. This priest's favorite reference to guide life-or-death decisions is a chief justice's ruling.
According to the Rev. Paris,

"even such things as artificial nutrition and fluid can become extraordinary if they become burdensome when you have to sustain somebody for 15 years on it. That’s surely burdensome. It has nothing to do with the technique itself. Antibiotics could be extraordinary if a patient is dying and it’s not going to offer many benefits."

Under his definition, nutrition can become an extraordinary measure to preserve life, when food and water is the most ORDINARY, UNIVERSAL way to preserve life. Think about the ramification of this perspective. Blood testing several times a day and injecting insulin for diabetes could be termed burdensome. So could dialysis. Before you decide I've gone too far in interpreting what Paris intends, read how he reiterates this point.

Newsweek: So you’re saying providing Schiavo with food and water is not morally obligatory?

Paris: For 400 years the Roman Catholic moral tradition has said that one is not obliged to use disproportionately burdensome measures to sustain life.

Newsweek: And in this case, you view this as disproportionately burdensome?

Paris: Fifteen years of maintaining a woman [on a feeding tube] I’d say is disproportionately burdensome, yes.

Terri is not on life support and requires less care than a newborn. She requires less care than other seriously ill people whose lives are maintained though intolerably burdensome means like dialysis. This priest thinks feeding someone twice a day is disproportionately burdensome. I hope I'm never his house guest. How would he feel about the disproportionate burden of providing fresh linens and a clean bathroom, the maintenance of both those normalcies which require more time and elbow grease than feeding Terri? I feed, water, and walk my dogs daily, bagging up their poop with my own wittle hannies. Burdensome to some perhaps, but it's my joy in them and concern for their welfare that makes me do it, and I'm not even legally allowed to starve them as Terri's starving now.

My problem with using "disproportionately burdensome" as a guide is its inherent relativity. This is especially significant when we have one party who unapologetically wants Terri dead and another that wishes to remove her from the medical environment (which her stable, healthy body doesn't require) and provide all her nurturance in a home surrounded by her loving family. To whom is this incredible offer not burdensome? A mother. Most mothers.

These tortuous considerations may all be moot, because someday soon, without unforecasted intervention, Terri will die. And I differ with all the pundits who start their articles with the disclaimer that they'd certainly never want to live that way. I'm a human exceptionalist. I believe human life represents something unprecedented and rare. I believe the innovations of science and medicine allow us to maximize the potential of many severely disabled persons. Certainly, if my body were healthy and comfortable (and maybe even if it weren't) I'd want to live.

Life is good. Life wants to live. Once, that wasn't assumed to be such a crackpot notion. I never thought I'd find myself being viewed as a fanatical right wing fascist bedroom-invader, but if my compassion has led me here, so I am. I can't be with the lawyers or the death promoting activists on this one. I am with the poets. At least, the non-suicidal ones.

This is a C.S. Lewis quote: "It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects --military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden --that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increaseand prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police,economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."

Here's another: There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

I will conclude this train of commentary, possibly forever, by saying that I fervently believe Terri Schiavo is a splendid immortal who deserves the ordinary happinesses that simple existence can bring.

No comments: