Difficult Decisions

I sympathize with anyone in the position Alan Reynolds was in when faced with the loss of his mother and his great concern for her full and true welfare. However, I agree with John Hutchins’s thoughtful comments to Alan’s post.

Alan, I think the key element here is that the Terri Schiavo case does not fit the situation you describe, as I have noted in earlier postings on the matter. To wit and in particular, Terri Schiavo is not brain dead. She is not in an advanced, incurable stage of Alzheimer’s disease, nor is she suffering great pain, as far as anyone can discern, nor does she suffer from any of the other conditions typically given as reasons for mercy killing. She is by no means an obvious candidate for a killing by denial of food and water—except for the unsupported statements of her husband, a man who has become entirely estranged from her and her family. He won’t even allow them to visit her, lest they place an ice chip on her dehydrated lips.

Surely, Alan, your emotional ties to your mother were far stronger than the obvious emotional distance Michael Schiavo displays toward Terri!

As I mentioned earlier, the New York Times agrees that Terri Schiavo is not a conventional candidate for mercy killing, even if one accepts the premise that euthanasia can be acceptable. In Tuesday’s story by Abby Goodnough, the reporter noted, “She [Terri Schiavo] can breathe on her own and has periods of wakefulness, but Judge George Greer of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, who presided over the case, accepted the testimony of doctors who said she was in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ and incapable of thought or emotion.”

The real issue here is not whether Terri Schiavo should die but who should decide the matter. The question of who is qualified to choose, who truly has Terri’s best interests at heart, is not only a legal question but also, and much more powerfully, a moral one. That, I think, is why passions have run so high over this matter.

In my view, although perhaps not others’, it could not be more obvious that Terri’s parents want what is best for her, in line with their religious beliefs, of course, but without any true conflicts of interest. Michael Schiavo, on the other hand, does have an explicit interest in seeing Terri die, if only to get on with his own life unencumbered by a very disabled wife.

This moral issue is extremely important to the body politic. Recent history, especially trends in Europe, makes it quite clear that there will be many more such attempts to stretch the definition of what it is acceptable for doctors and legal guardians to do in ending the lives of patients under their care. And not all of these will be cases in which the right choice is clear, as in the nevertheless agonizing case of Alan’s decision about his mother. In addition, as the huge Baby Boom generation reaches advanced age, these decisions will become even more common and increasingly vexing—and a great number of Boomers will be in Terri’s position instead of Michael’s.

Hence, the discussion of Terri’s sad plight is important and necessary. Only when the public presses for and receives clear legislation on these matters will the law have a chance of fully reflecting the needs of both parties in such cases, with a true respect for the rights of the helpless to live even when they pose a burden others do not wish to accept.

The Florida courts have decided that the law is clear on this matter as it applies to the case currently in question. Be that as it may, the court of public opinion is making it increasingly evident that not all of the public sees the answer in this case as quite so obvious. This a matter that should be discussed, and one on which passions should indeed be high. If life and death are not important, nothing is.

This brings us to Alan’s argument about the Christian valuation of life evidenced by those who have expressed a desire that Terri not be dehydrated and starved to death: “Many who profess belief in a glorious afterlife have nonetheless become curiously agitated on behalf of clinging to the faintest semblance of life by unnatural means. This makes no theological sense unless Mrs. Schiavo is assumed to be damned, which seems a very unChristian presumption.”

This is a serious question and merits a serious answer. I shall presume that a clear reference from Scripture will suffice to explain the ambivalence Alan has correctly identified. Here it is, from Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi (Plilippians 1:21-24):

21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”

As Paul makes clear, to long to be with Christ, or to wish to have another person be with Christ, does not suggest that we yearn for a quick death. Christians believe that God Himself is in and with every believer, through the presence of His Holy Spirit in the believer’s body. We do not need to wait for that. The presence of God’s very Spirit in a person, or in the case of an unbeliever the possibility that this happy circumstance could come to pass, is in fact a compelling reason for Christians to seek the preservation of human lives. To desire that Terri Schiavo not be sent to the afterlife before her appointed time is therefore neither strange nor perverse—it is thoroughly Christian.