Jewish World Review March 21, 2005 / 10 Adar II, 5765
A Very Frank Talk on Terri Schiavo
If we are to ever have an honest discussion on the issues raised by the case of Terri Schiavo, we will have to speak frankly about at least two facts.
1. Starving is an unacceptable way to deliver a mercy killing. If the goal is to spare Mrs. Schiavo the agony (which implies awareness, by the way) of living in a cage of a body, then starving her to death is hardly a kindness. Mrs. Schiavo may be able to sense pain in the same way the rest of us do. Then again, maybe she can't. It could be that her reaction to stimulus is pure reflex, on the order of a flower turning to the morning sun. We can't know, and that is just the point. Her body will react to the lack of sustenance with the agonizing process of shutting down and dying.
If the goal of those who would hasten Mrs. Schiavo's passing is to end her suffering, then the unknowable problem of pain makes this route utterly unacceptable, and beyond inhumane. The passivity of denying food may soothe the conscience, but only for those willing to delude themselves.
Those who favor letting her die should come right out and say it: let's get her dead in the quickest and least painful way possible. Whether that's smothering with a pillow, as in the movie "Million Dollar Baby"; lethal injection as used for execution; an overdose of medication as we all assume occurs quietly on a somewhat regular basis; or a bullet to the head, anything is better than starving to death over a period of weeks. If she is unaware, then the sooner her departure the better. If she is aware, best to make her departure as quick and painless as possible. Starvation is barbarism.
2. If Mrs. Schiavo's case becomes the precedent, we will be allowing "mercy killing" as often for the benefit of the patient as for the caregiver. Let's be frank: the care of Mrs. Schiavo, and any other minimally responsive, permanently injured person, is an expensive, heartbreaking, time-consuming and boring proposition. I do not care to suppose the purity of Michael Schiavo's motives. For all I know, he is fighting tooth and nail to preserve the dignity of a woman he loves, even as he has carried on with his life, as he believed she would wish. (Surely we would all wish for our spouses to carry on and find new happiness if we were to die-but-not-quite.)
But not all mercy killing cases will be the sincere expression of the wishes of a loved one. When the uncle-I-haven't-seen-since-childhood turns up both consciousness- and immediate relative-free, most nieces and nephews won't be prepared to cut into the kids' soccer games, family vacations, career advancement and income to see that a stranger who doesn't even know he's alive gets food and water for a few decades.
When a person ceases to be aware that he is alive, is the maintenance of that life worth the burden on others? Some will answer yes, but a lot more will answer no. Utilitarianism is difficult to oppose these days. One will be hard-pressed to convince someone else that he should give up part of his own treasure and happiness to keep up the vital signs of a vegetable.
This discussion has yet to get realistic. Those who want to keep Mrs. Schiavo alive rely almost entirely on a moral argument that, to the non-religious, is a non-starter. The support for the argument rests deep in the meaning of and need for religious faith, and it is a little late to start making a case that is proven not by rhetoric by a lifetime of selfless example.
Those who want to let Mrs. Schiavo go need to drop the self-righteous routine and admit that in many cases, it will not be moral obligation that motivates but the fact that caring for someone like Mrs. Schiavo is a frustrating, reward-free burden that they would rather be rid of. And that starving someone who can't complain about it is a moral prophylactic against mercy killing that fools no one who stops to think.
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