20 March 2005

Terri Schiavo and the Government's role in Life and Death

On Wednesday, Judge George Greer, a compassionate conservative in Tampa, FL, ordered Terri Schiavo's feeding tube removed; doctors removed the tube Friday. Judge Greer has overseen the Schiavo case since 1998 --- due to a potassium deficiency probably caused by an eating disorder, her heart stopped briefly and she suffered severe brain damage in 1990, and has been incapacitated since --- and has consistently found conclusive evidence that Schiavo, as her husband alleges, would rather not be kept alive in her current critically brain-damaged and "vegetative" state. For this decision Greer has been forced out of his church and must bring with him police protection wherever he goes. The federal courts has repeatedly refused accepting the case, citing a lack of jurisdiction; in the last few days, just as they try to leave for a two-week Easter recess, many conservative members of Congress have scrapped together a handful of bills and subpoenas designed to keep Schiavo alive long enough to move her case to federal court and grant her parents federal standing. (The Times has a short piece on the subpoenas, and for more detailed discussion of the legal issues, I suggest starting at Balkinization.)

When I first read the news, I was in a more sarcastic mood than I am now, made angrier by the previous day's decision 51-49 by the Senate to open up the ANWR to drilling (and caribou-killing, and Alaskan-native threatening). I went downstairs and started complaining to anyone in the kitchen who would listen. "I would like to say how proud I am of the US House right now," I said, "in their decision to spend untold resources on protecting the life of one brain-dead woman, forcing her to stay alive for now more than a decade. As opposed to, you know, saving hundreds, thousands, millions of lives by, for instance, working to stop the genocide in Darfur, helping the homeless and hungry in this country, making sure that kids aren't kicked out of their homes and into problematic and often drug-filled environments for being gay, or, say, making sure that there are well-funded shelters for battered women, and more generally working to stop domestic violence. No, those issues aren't important, whereas Terri Schiavo is such an important individual that her story belongs in the US House of Representatives and on the front page of the New York Times."

I don't blame the Times. If the House does something like this, I want to know about it. But there is something wrong with putting so much energy into Schiavo. I'm sure the Florida governor and legislature have better things to worry about (although, being Republican-controlled, I'm guessing that they wouldn't be worrying about the things I want them to worry about anyway, like poverty issues, voting rights, and how to most easily naturalize the many currently-illegal immigrants). And I know that there are better things for me to worry about. It upsets me that they are stealing my time by dragging on this case. I don't really give a damn about one woman whom I've never met who has been incapacitated in a hospital in Florida since she suffered critical brain damage when her heart stopped back in the _early nineties_. I mean, I do, but there are so many people who die every day, often for purely preventable reasons. Let's irradicate AIDS. Let's get rid of hunger. These are fully within America's resources, but not if we spend our time worrying about one euthanasia case.

In fact, I don't think any of those members of Congress actually really care about Terri Schiavo. Her parents do, as does her husband, and by know probably so does Judge Greer, and that's why they continue to fight. But Congress is getting involved for other reasons. And that's why I'm writing about it: I have no desire to have Schiavo continue being kept alive or let to die, but I do want to talk about the conservatives' reasons for keeping her alive (both physically and metaphorically) and denounce them.

There are many people who hold a consistent and honorable (if ultimately wrong) "pro-life" position (I would rather not get into abortion issues here, although the discussions are related; if you'll let me, I'll save those thoughts for a later post). This position seems to go as follows: human life (understood as physical life of a human organism) is inherently valuable, and to destroy it is always wrong (and the State should interfere with attempts to do so). As such, consistent pro-life-ers oppose any form of the death penalty, violent war (except, possibly, to stop other killings, depending on how they weigh the relative responsibilities of the State to both avoid killing and to stop other killings), suicide, prenatal abortion, and euthanasia.

I don't share this position, but I respect those who do --- their values are similar to mine, in that we share a respect for humans, and many have made the completely understandable calculation that a policy that allows the State to end lives, even for ostensibly noble reasons (if, say, someone wants to die), is too risky, as it opens the door for the State to kill "undesirables" by arguing that they would want to, or that they're not sentient enough to matter. And I can't argue against such a position except via a nuanced discussion of basic values, in which I outline mine: in my understanding, life is not in itself inherently valuable; what's valuable is humans' ability to make choices about their lives, and to have individual and private control over their own lives. I have a very broad definition of who counts as a human, and I think it's very important that one doesn't enter lightly into decisions about creation or annihilation of life. The side of caution certainly lies with asking people who are alive to stay alive, and with avoiding creating new lives. But no one will argue for universal cautiousness, and I think we can trust individuals to make their own decisions, and rely on people like Judge Greer when the individual whose life is at stake cannot speak for herself. If Greer had consistently found that Schiavo would prefer to stay alive, I might suggest that I would have other preferences in a similar condition, but I wouldn't question the decision to let her live.

A consistent pro-life-er might side with Schiavo's parents against her husband in the present case, but as soon as one introduces all the other concerns that plague human lives, I hope that reasonable people won't put much energy into this battle. Of course, one should never have faith that members of Congress are particularly reasonable. And none of them are particularly consistently pro-life, either. Most notable (and oft-commented-upon) is the decision of many conservatives, including our president, to support the death penalty while denying individuals a right to die. Our former attorney general favored the regular torture and killing of generally non-white individuals who committed various crimes, and simultaneously crusaded against Oregon's Death With Dignity act, in which Oregon doctors may prescribe lethal doses of various drugs to terminally ill patients who choose to end their lives peacefully now, rather than painfully later.

Schiavo's case is different from most Oregonian right-to-die cases, and it's dangerous to stretch the analogy too far. Again, I want to reiterate that I support allowing her to starve to death (from what I can tell, especially for an incapacitated and relatively nerve-dead individual such as Schiavo, starving to death is a relatively peaceful way to go, and ketosis can even coincide with a euphoric state) because I trust Judge Greer's judgment. It's scares me to think that someone might kill a severely physically or mentally disabled because they think they would want to die. Our society must provide more resources to those individuals traditionally pathologized as "disabled", to assure that they lead full and active physical and intellectual lives. It wasn't until the last decade that the governor of Oregon formally apologized for the forced sterilization in the early 20th century of alter-abled members of his state. But it's not the worry of a resurgence of Social Darwinism that is driving most "pro-life" conservative law-makers, and larger right-to-die issues are very central.

Let me no longer beat around the bush. It seems very clear to me that the conservatives who want to keep Terri Schiavo alive are doing so as part of a program to increase, or at least maintain, government control over individuals' lives and deaths. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, and perhaps "program" is too strong a word --- many of our conservative legislators presumably lack a clear agenda for how to achieve greater government control, or even realize entirely consciously that that's what they're going for, but they do in fact want it. Of course, that's what being a social conservative is all about: restricting individuals' freedoms and reducing their control over their own lives.

And that's why Schiavo's case has received so much national attention, why so many debates revolve around her. She herself isn't all that important --- the majority leader's rhetoric may try to convince you that she is, but it's a lie --- she's important only to a few family members and lawyers and judges who are actually arguing her case in Florida state courts. But she stands for, and gives a name to, a larger debate over the government's role in life and death. Can the government legitimately restrict my ability to die, or to live? How about my ability to make medical decisions for an incapacitated loved one who trusts me? Does the government need to protect me from myself? And how much should these restrictions or lacks thereof be federally unified, and how much should be left to more local decision-making bodies? Most basically, what are my rights to my body?

These are debates worth having, and their worth having on the Senate floor. I certainly have many opinions about them, and you will probably be hearing more from me on the subject(s) in postings to come. I hope to hear from other bloggers, and, in fact, from politicians, many of whom are very smart and probably do hold reasoned, nuanced opinions. So let's talk about death, let's have a national dialogue (or even better a "polylogue" --- there are more than two opinions that need expressing), and let's pass congressional resolutions, laws, and even, if need be to protect human rights, constitutional amendments. But don't focus on Schiavo. Using her as a stand-in, as a euphemism, is cowardly, and denies her her humanity much more than does removing her feeding tube.

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