Thursday, March 31, 2005

Death and dignity: The Schiavo Case

There isn't much more to say about the life and death of Terri Schiavo. A beautiful editorial in today's Times, published just hours after her death, sums up quite closely how I feel about the matter:

"Americans are a deeply pragmatic people, who constantly shock ideologues of every persuasion with their willingness to accept whatever solution seems to work out best at the moment. Our great ideals, when they are boiled down at a moment of crisis, are mainly instincts for fairness, for the right of individual self-determination. Watching the Schiavo case unfold, most Americans quickly opted for the solution that would end the ordeal.

Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the fact that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die. They deserve respect, just as her husband and her family members deserve sympathy. The frightening thing about the case was that other people, far more powerful and far less emotionally involved, looked at the world we live in today, in which politics is about maximizing hysteria at the margins, and concluded that the fight was one that would pay off in worldly terms as well.

But today, finally, there is a moment of consensus. Rest in peace, Theresa Marie."

This may be a bad choice of words, but the political post mortem will continue. For my part, without knowing enough to reach any definite conclusions, I can only trust the expertise of her neurologists -- and, whatever the last-minute claims of doctors brought in by her family, those neurologists agreed that she was, in fact, living in a vegetative state. Or is that even the right way to put it? Was she at all living? In a sense, yes, but not, it would seem, in any truly human way. She was alive insofar as her body hadn't yet shut down. And those videos, streaming across the world, showed something. Yes, they had been conveniently edited to imply something approaching full consciousness, and hence to raise hopes of a miracle recovery, but they were nonetheless touching. But look through that. Her brain -- or at least the part of it that make a human being human in any full sense -- wasn't there anymore. It had withered away, much like the Terri Schiavo that had been there before the heart stoppage that ended up taking her life. In fact, it can be said that she was already "dead," and had been these past 15 years. That may sound like a heartless thing to say, but how can it be said that she was truly "alive"?

It was amazing to see how this story of one woman -- and let's remember that there are many like her, far away from the cameras -- swept through American culture for a brief few weeks in the spring of 2005. To me, stories like only compel one -- okay, me -- to confront one's mortality, to acknowledge, against our attempts at self-forgetting the linear direction of human nature: we are born and we die, and what matters, more than the bookends, is how the in-between is lived. Terri Schiavo had stopped living -- that is, had stopped living a life that anyone would want to live. It's unfortunate, if predictable, that the right, largely the religious right, prioritized its fetishization of life (anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia -- yet pro-death penalty and, often, pro-war), to quote Andrew Sullivan, over the dignity of life well-lived. It's unfortunate, too, that many on the left focused on the cold legalities of the matter, defending the decisions of the Florida courts as a matter of course and opposing Congressional interference and the intrusion of federal courts into what they accepted, because convenient, as a purely state matter. This focus on procedure, however correct the view that the rule of law (and hence states' rights) should prevail in such matters, detracted from the major point: Decisions of life and death like this one are private matters. Where that isn't possible, as here, the courts do need to intervene. But what truly matters is that the dignity of the person in question trumps other considerations. And the dignity of the person is not -- and this is where the right gets it wrong -- equatable with life itself, but with life that is worth living, with life that means something. As sad as it may be, Terri Schiavo's life had stopped meaning anything when the decomposition of her brain took away her very humanity.

As Aristotle put it, the city exists not just for the sake of living, but for the sake of living well. It's important to remember that. It should guide not just our views of life and death in individual cases, but also our very public policy. Too many people out there are alive and clinging to life: the old, the sick, the poor. But is life an end in and of itself? To a point, yes, but there must be more to life than just being alive, and, to me, a society should be judged by how well its members live, both individually and collectively.

As for Terri Schiavo, there are two ways to look at her death. Either there is an after-life, as so many of those protesters and mourners outside her hospice believe, or there isn't, in which case this is all we've got. If the former, we can have faith that Terri is in a better place, freed from the confines of a body that had mostly stopped functioning (why would all those believers who would have done anything to keep her "alive" have wanted her soul to remain trapped in that body?). If the latter, we can have faith that she touched family and friends, and now so many of us around the world, but that she is now relieved of the indignity of a life no longer worth living. Either way, let the moment of consensus continue for as long as possible.

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