compos mentis, "of sound mind"

With permission granted begrudgingly from the author, I published her articles in this blog in response to pleas from her fans--okay, mostly aunts and uncles--for ready access to her cogitations. As the humble president of her fan club, I am delighted to oblige.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Terri Schiavo's Right to Life

This article was published in The Indicator, April 7, 2005, vol. XIX, issue 4. The Indicator is Amherst College's Journal of Social and Political Thought.

Living on a Prayer: Even the profoundly disabled are endowed with the right to life
by Elizabeth Petrik

“If Terri Schiavo did not choose to die, then someone else chose for her. And that should outrage everyone.”
“The word of her husband that she would have preferred to die along with Justice Greer’s foregone conclusion that quality of life should determine its length were enough to condemn her.”
Among many impoverished peoples, Darwinism is still the law of the land. Those who cannot fend for themselves die. That preserving the life of a chronically helpless woman was even a subject for debate in this nation proclaims our blessings as a society. That we ultimately came down on the side of death, however, signals their abuse. It is a clear warning that the most powerful advocate of human rights on the planet needs to reevaluate its priorities when, in the name of “self-determination,” 56 percent of Americans decide that someone else’s life is not worth living.
Given the complex moral nature of Terri Schiavo’s case, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people were misguided. Schiavo had existed in a vegetative state for fifteen years following a collapse allegedly due to a chemical imbalance in her body. She had not been able to speak, walk, communicate, or eat on her own since that time. When, after enduring a decade and a half with a helpless and unresponsive wife and spending most of a million-dollar malpractice settlement on her therapy and care, Michael Schiavo decided to let her die, it is easy to see why many Americans supported him. Hearing her story, we all wonder, “What if it were my spouse, or sibling, or child? What if it were I?” And it is difficult to imagine wanting to see a loved one suffer that way, or wanting to go on living oneself under such conditions.
There is a good reason, however, why the maxim “where there’s life, there’s hope” has endured since ancient times. Since society is an institution of the living, it must be an institution that promotes life or it risks destroying the very basis for its existence. As President Bush stated on March 31, the day of Schiavo’s death, "The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life." When one person dies according to the will of another, it is the duty of society to intervene. As much as we would rather appeal to the “right to privacy” and leave the whole tragic business to the family, it is a fact of life that one person’s privacy ends where another person’s body begins. If Terri Schiavo did not choose to die, then someone else chose for her. And that should outrage everyone.
Once the need for a social “bias toward life” has been established, the duty of the state to prevent a powerless person from being deliberately starved to death seems clear. Much of the debate in Schiavo’s case has centered on whether Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida legislature, the U.S. Congress, and the President have acted out of line by interfering with the legal process that condemned Schiavo to death. This is certainly an important question. Upholding the power of the judiciary is crucial to the function of American government. But nitpicking about checks and balances is inappropriate and blind when a life is at stake. We should never lose sight of the state’s primary purpose when we are arguing about its particulars, and defending human life is a far more central objective than guarding against any shift in the balance of power. Thus, even “private bills” for intercession into one particular situation, like Congress’s Palm Sunday bill allowing federal courts to review Schiavo’s case, are justified when an innocent citizen’s fundamental rights are at stake.
Most of the official rulings on Schiavo’s case focused on another perceived right—the “right to die.” In the original decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube in 2000, Justice George W. Greer stated that with regard “to quality of life being the primary criteria in artificial life support matters, Americans want to ‘try it for awhile’ but they do not wish to live on it with no hope of improvement. That implicit condition has long since been satisfied in this case.” As a basis for deciding whether Schiavo would live or die, the court thus presented itself with the impossible task of determining what her wishes would have been if she were still competent. When criminals are sentenced to death, their worthiness of capital punishment must be established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, in Schiavo’s case, the word of her husband and two of his family members that she would have preferred to die along with Justice Greer’s foregone conclusion that quality of life should determine its length were enough to condemn her. Those concerned with the right to self-determination and pro-life advocates both should be appalled at such an arbitrary ruling.
A final point: since it has been such a contentious issue and has in fact rendered the debate worldwide, it is worth discussing Terri Schiavo’s Roman Catholic faith. In general, the Church permits its members to refuse the use of extraordinary life-preserving measures, as long as the reason for refusal is not primarily to end life. In March 2004, the pope issued a statement to the effect that supplying nutrition and hydration, even through artificial means, is never to be construed as an extraordinary measure and “should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory.” Although “we should never starve people on purpose” seems a sound principle even for a secular society, I won’t insist upon it. It does seem unjust, however—not to say unconstitutional—that the courts have refused to consider the Schindlers’ plea for their daughter’s right to Free Exercise of this belief in the sanctity of life.
Terri Schiavo’s death was a blow, not only to the convictions of the religious Right, but to the rights of all helpless and dependent persons. In deciding who is too disabled to live, a state, especially our State, rejects the only quality that gives it the claim to rule: “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it telling that the results of Terri's autopsy do not make one word of this piece irrelevant, obsolete or misguided?

1:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home