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End of the Affair

April 11, 2005

Some final notes on the Terri Schiavo case. The behavior of conservatives: Uneven and sometimes awful, with lots of vituperation and extreme charges. (Jeb Bush does not remind me of Pontius Pilate; I don’t think it’s fair to circulate rumors that Michael Schiavo was a wife-beater.) Worse were the revolutionary suggestions that the courts be ignored or defied, perhaps by sending in the National Guard to reconnect the tube. This is “by any means necessary” rhetoric of the radical left, this time let loose by angry conservatives. Where does this rhetoric lead?

The behavior of liberals: Mystifying. While conservative opinion was severely splintered, liberal opinion seemed monolithic: Let her die. Liberals usually rally to the side of vulnerable people, but not in this case. Democrats talked abstractly about procedures and rules, a reversal of familiar roles. I do not understand why liberal friends defined the issue almost solely in terms of government intruding into family matters. Liberals are famously willing to enter family affairs to defend individual rights, opposing parental-consent laws, for example. Why not here? Nonintervention is morally suspect when there is strong reason to wonder whether the decision-maker in the family has the helpless person’s best interests at heart.

A few liberals broke ranks–10 members of the black caucus, for instance, plus Sen. Tom Harkin and Ralph Nader, who called the case “court-imposed homicide.” But such voices were rare. My suspicion is that liberal opinion was guided by smoldering resentment toward President Bush and the rising contempt for religion in general and conservative Christians in particular. We seem headed for much more conflict between religious and secular Americans.

The behavior of the news media: Terrible. “Pro-life” columnist Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice called it “the worst case of liberal media bias I’ve seen yet.” Many stories and headlines were politically loaded. Small example of large disdain: On air, a CBS correspondent called the Florida rallies a “religious roadshow,” a term unlikely to have been applied to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights demonstrations or any other rallies meeting CBS’s approval. More important, it was hard to find news that Michael Schiavo had provided no therapy or rehabilitation for his wife since 1994 and even blocked the use of antibiotics when Terri developed a urinary infection. And the big national newspapers claimed as a fact that Michael Schiavo’s long-delayed recollection of Terri’s wish to die, supported only by hearsay from Michael’s brother and a sister-in-law, met the standard for “clear and convincing evidence” of consent. It did nothing of the sort, particularly with two of Terri’s friends testifying the opposite. The media covered the intervention by Congress as narrowly political and unwarranted. They largely fudged the debates over whether Terri Schiavo was indeed in a persistent vegetative state and whether tube-feeding meant that Schiavo was on life support. In the Nancy Cruzan case, the Supreme Court said that tube-feeding is life support, but some ethicists and disability leaders strongly dispute that position.

Unsettled questions. Public opinion: Polls showed very strong opposition to the Republican intervention, but the likelihood is that those polled weren’t primarily concerned with Terri Schiavo or Republican overreaching, if that’s what it was. They were thinking about themselves and how to avoid being in Terri Schiavo’s predicament. Many, too, have pulled the plug on family members and don’t want these wrenching decisions second-guessed by the courts or the public.

If this is correct, it means the country has yet to make up its mind on the issue of personhood and whether it is moral and just to remove tube-supplied food and water from people with grave cognitive disabilities. The following candid exchange occurred on Court TV last month in a conversation between author Wesley Smith and bioethicist Bill Allen. Smith: “Bill, do you think Terri is a person?” Allen: “No, I do not. I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood.” Fetuses, babies, and Alzheimer’s patients are only minimally aware and might not fit this definition of personhood, and so would have no claim on our protections. Smith points out that other bioethicists narrow protection further, requiring rationality, the capacity to experience desire, or the ability to value one’s own existence. Tighter definitions of personhood expand the number of humans who can be killed without blame or harvested for their organs while still alive. On Court TV, Allen argued that the family could have removed Terri’s organs while she was alive, “just as we allow people to say what they want done with their assets.” This issue has been hiding behind the Terri Schiavo case for years. Soon it will be out in the open.

From → Politics

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