Thursday, March 31, 2005

An examined life: requiem for Terri Schindler Schiavo

She's dead, at last. Thirteen days after her last meal, Terri Schindler Schiavo has finally succumbed. As the horrible process went on, doctors confidently stated that she was beyond pain; thank God her doctors were not so confident in practice, and at least eased with morphine any suffering her twists and moans may have indicated.

I am Terri's friend. A young woman who, when she was able to choose her friends, might have numbered them in the dozens, can now claim them in the millions - or, more accurately, cannot deny them, even if some are friends she would never have chosen herself. What we share, we friends of Terri, is belief that even though she was critically impaired, even though she had little if any chance for improvement under the best of conditions, the fact of her humanity was unaltered. We reject the term "vegetable" as applied to a human being. We reject a "right to die" articulated on her behalf by a husband who, at best, was weary of the demands her continued life placed on him. We reject an equivalence between the enforced cessation of nourishment for a woman not ill and the turning off of machines that replace the functions of non-functioning organs. We reject the obscene notion that "quality of life" can be determined by someone outside the life in question, and that a public opinion poll ought to bear on an innocent woman's right to continue to breathe.

This is what we share: we recognize that Terri's worth did not, never did, depend on her ability to write a letter or walk across a room or talk on the phone. Her worth was not determined by, but was amply demonstrated by, her family's refusal to ignore the signs that she still inhabited her own body, however imperfectly - their continual treatment of her as their daughter and their sister.

And her worth was not diminished in any tiniest amount by her faithless husband's denial of it. His mouth formed the words "Terri's wish"; his life spelled out in bold block capitals, "MICHAEL'S WISH." Whether Terri herself would have chosen these last years is a question we can never answer; but we can certainly answer the secondary question of who believed her to have value, even in a hospice room.

I am Terri's friend, though she never knew me and I never met her. I'm swallowing past a lump in my throat, typing with tear-blurred eyes, because God refuses to waste even this sad and dreadful hour, even these long and grueling years. A pretty woman who might have lived out her days shopping and going to PTA meetings and pursuing a career inside or outside her home, God has transformed into a warning signpost at the border of the dark woods we know as the "right to die": "Beware - wild animals!"

The slippery slope is a favorite fallacy in basic logic classes. The formulation is simple: a result will inevitably follow from a starting point. The fallacious part is the inevitability, not the following. Therefore: as often in the past thirteen days as I have heard kind people suggest that Terri should have been injected with enough morphine or some other humane drug to carry her off quickly rather than allow her to linger, I cannot agree. To allow doctors to assist suicide is to grant them license to do harm at the request of the patient. The harm is final; otherwise we would be talking about a kind of sado-masochistic relationship that the well-adjusted might be able to permit though not to condone. And the myth that suicide is a private matter is one that we as a society have chosen, correctly, to repudiate. To allow doctors to assist killing that is not suicide, such as to bring about Terri's swifter death, would be to grant them license to do harm to a person at the request of another. In this case, the "other" was a construct of a demonstrably estranged husband and - most horribly - a court of law. The only grace we can cling to in the behavior of this construct was that it did not ask or urge a physician to speed Terri to her death. It killed her, not passively, but at least it did not seek professional help to do it more quickly.

One terminus - a word I choose deliberately - of this slippery slope is involuntary euthanasia. While that end is not inevitable, it is absolutely necessary that we know that one path down this wooded hill leads there. The insistence by some that this "family matter" was not the province of government is an empty one; this "family matter" strikes at the deepest convictions we hold: that life is an inalienable right; that the taking of life without due process is not permissible; that the defense of life is a proper role of governments among men; that where the rights of individuals meet in conflict, the proper role of government is to act such that the fewest or smallest rights are lost. Here, the judiciary decided that the right of a husband to speak for his wife in requesting her death, though her wishes were at best inferred from minimal conversation in questionable context by compromised witnesses, trumped the right of the woman to go on living. In essence, the right to cause death trumped the right to life, in the initial judgments. And, in later judgments, the right of the judiciary to rule unchallenged trumped the right of the legislative and executive branches to act as a check and balance on it.

God lets nothing go to waste, not even this sad and dreadful hour, not even these long and grueling years. We will reap - something - from this hour, from these years. God cherish Terri's soul, and God help us choose the right path down this wooded hill.


Fred said...

My first impulse was to argue. We can still do that if you wish, but because I, like you, am "Terri's friend", I choose instead to post here an item I've also sent to some "Letters to the Editor" columns. It probably won't get published there because it's more about raw feelings than attempts to rationalize them.

Terri Schiavo – Thoughts on March 31, 2005

Oh what righteous fury has issued from the mouths of Bob and Mary Schindler, Father Pavone, Randall Terry, and other condemners of Michael Schiavo for asserting that Terri would have preferred release from her vegetative existence rather than its hopeless continuation! It is mountainous. Vast as their anger may be, however, I and other supporters of Michael’s position can match it. For every thunderbolt of rage they hurl, I can throw two at them. And as recriminations flowed today from her passing, I was prepared to do just that. But then suddenly I remembered something.

Terri is watching.

This shy, decent young woman, who loved humans and animals alike and emanated friendship as the sun radiates warmth is watching what I do, and that has stayed my hand.

And to Michael and George Felos, and other supporters, I would just say: “Before you castigate Terri’s parents, who brought her into this world, nurtured her, and made her the loving creature she was, whose love she treasured in return, and who are now suffering the unfathomable anguish of the loss of a child, remember – Terri is watching.”

And to Bob and Mary Schindler and the others, I would say: “Before you further vilify Michael, who joined with you in extraordinary efforts to rescue his wife from her tragic incapacity during the first few years while he still had hope – before you further demonize this person who loved Terri and who was the only man Terri ever loved, remember – Terri is watching.”

And to certain politicians who are moved to issue their own wrathful statements, I would simply say: “She cannot vote, but she is watching.”

There will be time for debate in the future.

Bob and Mary and Michael and others all claim to know what Terri would have wanted. They were close to her, and I know of her only through the media with all its distance and its slants and distortions, but I say to them: “I know with certainty what Terri’s wish is. Presumptuous of me, you reply? Arrogant? You may say so, but I tell you with certainty that her wish is for you to join together in reconciliation, to forgive each other’s transgressions, and to share your treasured memories as a loving family should. I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.

Remember – Terri is watching.”

Jamie said...

fred -

Forgiveness has to start somewhere. Like you, my first impulse is to argue: but I'll do as the Schindlers asked and desist, in honor of her memory.

Please don't take my failure to press an argument here as any kind of capitulation on my part. I believe human life is of such value, and is under such threat of redefinition on functionalist grounds, that I can't concede any more than this: it is possible that Terri would not have wanted to live in the condition she found herself in. It is possible. But it's far from certain. And where that certainty can't be sufficiently determined as to satisfy her own family, who love her, as you note, and cannot possibly have wanted to see her live as she did for the last fifteen years of her life - except that the alternative was for her simply not to be alive at all, I stand for the side of feeding the woman.

I suppose this is an argument of sorts. I don't know any longer. The death - with utter dignity - of the Pope, a man who knew something about suffering and its purposes and its inevitable end, has shed more light on Terri Schindler Schiavo's death than I can quite stand yet.

Thanks for commenting; I hope you'll come back.