March 23, 2005
The Schiavo case and moral inquiryBy Tim McNabb
The case of Terri Schaivo uncorks a nettlesome series of moral propositions every bit as difficult as some theoretical scenario crafted by a philosophy professor to taunt his freshmen. It pits a spouse's responsibility against a parent's love. It pits a state bench against the federal bench. It conjures questions about self and quality of life, all tall weeds that thankfully few of us have to deal with.
Or do we? While the likelihood of any of us having a loved one in a seriously diminished capacity like Terri is fairly low, I believe the cultural beliefs about life do affect us all. Questions of life are entwined with questions of hope, even if we cannot quite put our finger on how. The following are thoughts I have on these issues, though I know that good folk can disagree. Further, I want to be clear that these weighty matters weigh heavily on us all, and if my prose seems flippant or harsh, I ask for your forgiveness.
The right to die
The right to die, as it is called, seeks to respect the desire by a fully functioning person to not live as a profoundly incapacitated person. On the surface, nobody who can write, read a book or carry on a conversation would want to live on as Terri Schaivo or Nancy Cruzan. With food, water and prevention of bedsores by caregivers a younger person can linger for decades in such condition. My native Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Cruzan's family presented clear and convincing evidence that Nancy would not have wanted to continue in that state, and Ms. Cruzan perished a few weeks later after nutrition and fluids were withheld. In the eyes of the law, the capable Nancy called for the end of the incapable Nancy, wishes that the law enforced.
Like just over 50% of all people, I have an IQ in the triple digits. Should I sustain an injury that renders my IQ to the low double digits, does the high—IQ Tim have the right to declare the low—IQ Tim's life not worth living at some future date? We may occupy the same body, and almost certainly possess the same soul, yet do I have any more authority to set a value on that future theoretical life than I do on my current actual life? The law will not permit me to commit suicide. Men carrying handcuffs and a heavy canvas jacket will come haul me away until such a time I can convince a doctor that I am not a hazard to myself. How then may I then be permitted to be a hazard to my incapacitated self?
I am not insensitive to the fact that my loved ones would be left looking on their husband, grandpa, brother and friend not as I was, but in a manner too shockingly different and diminished to be contemplated without many quiet declarations of 'God forbid.' Still, this abyss must be considered carefully before blithely leaping in. The measure of a society is found in how the helpless are treated. I must ask myself if in instructing my caretakers to withhold food and water I might be tacitly participating in the devaluing of other helpless people.
Inherent worth or imparted worth
Consider how helpless an infant is. A newborn can do little more than what Terri Schiavo can do. Without cracking open the can of worms about the value of prenatal life, most would agree that a swaddled babe in arms is both helpless and worthy of protection. The utilitarian might calculate that the infant's life has value for what it will do in the future for society. I and my co—religionists would offer that life is valuable in and of itself, and if that infant never progressed past mental infancy, the life would still be precious.
Presuming one is not a utilitarian and wouldn't advocate the death of a infant whose body grew to adulthood, but never progressed to intellectual maturity (such as in the case of severe Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy cases) why then would we not confer value to an adult who has tragically regressed to mental infancy. The net effect is the very similar. Is a human life inherently valuable, or is it only valuable if someone in power confers value to it. For my part, I believe that human life has inherent value, and should only be forfeit under very limited circumstances.
As to suffering, one has define and categorize pain, reasonably categorized as emotional suffering and physical pain. What are we to make of them for the incapacitated person?
If you define emotional pain as some unfulfilled desire, how can an infantile mind desire that which it cannot comprehend? Terri Schaivo is not by any estimates suffering mental anguish, she simply lives in a state that is absent almost all of the higher intellectual faculties you and I take for granted. I don't see how Terri in her state can mourn and weep for all the books she cannot read or all the conversations she cannot have. Her desires are clearly very simple and easily met. To live she needs only comfort and nutrition and whatever stimulus is appropriate for her. Therefore, advancing her death does not alleviate emotional suffering for her, only for those who retain the ability to suffer such emotional anguish at her plight. By this logic we again find ourselves ending one life to enhance ours, declaring these simple needs too burdensome on our emotional health.
Physical pain is another matter. Most people can endure substantial pain so long as that pain is in some sort of context. A soldier will endure much to protect his comrades and nation. A mother endures labor, for she knows that the joy of her new baby will eclipse the agony of delivery. The pain is in context, the purpose and end are known.
Can an incapacitated person put pain in context? Some experts posit that starvation and dehydration are painless ends, but only a fool (especially an educated fool) would fall for that. If that were true, why do distended bellies and the tears of their starving owners quicken our sympathy? Terri Schaivo in her diminished capacity likely lacks awareness of her current state in contrast to her former state, as well as an ability to desire an end to it. Therefore whatever pain she'll be feeling as her life ebbs will be absent any context. When she endures, she'll not know the end nor the purpose, a cruel thing indeed.
Life and hope
Where there is life, there is hope. If there is an argument against the death penalty that compels me, it is that while a man is alive, he can repent and save his immortal soul. Paralleling that, when a man is alive, he might yet regain his strength by a physician's skill or Providence. Even something short of a full recovery would be worth hoping for. For my own family, how much less than 100% of my former self would bring them joy? God forbid my wife be so stricken, how much of her former self would I be pleased to have restored? I can assure you raucous praise and thanksgiving with a restoration of something quite south of 100%. Should that awful thing come to pass, I would hope to continue her legacy of love and service and be of sufficient character to find solace in whatever sweet response she might offer. Further, if I believe in a God of miracles and that His healing hand guides the physician, who am I to know that the future might hold some wonder to bring part of her back to us all? Death obviously takes all hope from the field.
Being a husband
I must confess to having had a very low estimation of Michael Schaivo. A man is his commitments, and his vow to Terri seemed not worth the air that passed his lips when he made them. On the other hand, the court—appointed guardian reports that Michael acquitted himself very well in the earlier years of Terri's malady. While many on my side of the argument paint a picture of a callow man and even accuse him of complicity in her injury and attempted murder, between the Guardian Ad Litem and the fact that all the 'evidence' of his malicious intent failed to attract a prosecutor's interest, I am content to see the poor man as you average Joe in a damn difficult predicament. The heroism with which Terri's mom and dad are fighting demonstrates a quite sacrificial and uncommon valor that sadly is no common virtue in our generation. There may have been a time when standing devoted to a crippled spouse for lifetime would have been commonplace, but it is true no longer and hasn't been for a long time. Mr. Schaivo is a product of his generation.
That specified, allow me then to hold the unfortunate fellow up to the glaring light of the ideal, an ideal I humbly pray I am not tested against. Mr. Schaivo understandably lost hope in Terri's life long ago and took up with another woman without ending his marriage. There might have been many reasons why he did not divorce Terri, some of them probably noble, but the bottom line is that adultery is an egregious offense precisely because the new relationship draws one away from their former commitment. No man can fully love two spouses. He will always have to choose to fulfill his duty with one or the other, but never both.
Michael quite reasonably would prefer life with an able partner rather than dedicating himself to his wife's care, but that does not mean he had any less of a duty to remain faithful unto death if that was his vow. Unfortunately, our common culture mocks adultery as a grave sin, much less we scolds who believe one could be and should be faithful to an incapacitated spouse. The reasonableness of Michael Schaivo's actions acknowledged, still, how can a judge look at a man who has made his bed with another woman and believe he has the first woman's best interests in mind?
The answer is either the judge cheaply considers commitment as much as our popular culture or that his hands are tied by the law (perhaps both). Moreover, this is a problem that transcends one judge and one unfortunate husband.
My home state of Missouri struck down the alienation of affection statutes whereby a cuckolded spouse could gain civil satisfaction from the person who wrecked their home. This was among the last legal recognitions that the bond between wife and husband had value that transcended community property and thus worthy of recompense if broken by a third party. Even if the presiding jurist believed that an incapacitated spouse could be cuckolded, the law and precedent may not allow him to declare the husband (in this case) an unfit caretaker and appoint another.
I can tell you this, if my wife discovered that I was unfaithful, she wouldn't let me so much as rotate the tires on her van, much less make life or death decisions about her care. Sadly, the duties of marriage are in such disrepute that we are left with just the hollow shell of a contract that, in the eyes of the law, no amount of immoral or faithless action can break if the other party cannot personally advocate for its dissolution.
A final word to my brethren as I sheath my wagging finger here — there is no need to focus on alleged malfeasance on Michael Schaivo's part. We lose no ground if we merely speak plainly of principles related to marriage we hold dear and eschew accusing the man of being anything but everyman in what all of us would acknowledge as a nightmare. It is a shame in our view and for many reasons that he chose the path he did, but I don't see how we can make him out to be a devil and serve charity.
Conclusion — of sorts
Hard cases make for bad law, and this is a hard case to be sure. We may have to be content to pray for God to receive her spirit even as we pray for his intervention in the hearts of her caretakers or even to heal her enough to settle the matter.
Absent that, and everyone knows that not every good thing asked for is received, we need to solace ourselves knowing that a great debate has been enjoined. The words 'culture of life' is on the lips of the common culture. Some say it to mock, some to enlighten their fellow man to a better way. In any case, I believe America is pulling out of a long spiral into nihilism and narcissism that has darkened us for decades. Our fellow citizens are talking about the issues of life and their meaning, so we have a great opportunity before us. If we are informed, if we are kind, if we are prayerful and courageous there is much headway to be made. To those who worship the same God as I, let us press on and not go weary of well—doing.
Also, so far I have not heard Terri's parents argue that she would have wanted to continue to live, only that they want her to live and that Michael has not proven that she wanted to die. We Christians advocating for life do so informed by the precautionary principle to do no harm, but it is possible that Terri would rather be let go under the circumstances. I have argued that we need to examine closely if even this is a wise thing, but it is possible that such an end might well be what she would have wished.
For those reading this that do not understand why we are passionate about this issue, I ask forbearance and patience. My Christian forefathers have much to answer for, but they did much good too. Hospitals, schools, the abolition of slavery must be counted along with the misdeeds and failures. It is the former good spirit that we hope that we hope to fulfill. Please ascribe to us gentle motives, our hearts are in the right place even if our mouths wander off the path.
Finally, what do I want for myself were I in Terri's condition? What have all my brave words and profundities lead me to? A fair question, and here is the answer. Feed me, water me, keep my body from bedsores and leave the TV on the History channel. To my family and friends visit if you can bear to, but feel no guilt if life calls you away. I plan to be in my Father's house in thirty odd years in any case, so we can just agree to meet there (you will be there, won't you, if you are not sure, e—mail me). To my wife my wishes are only wishes made now, not the future. I have complete confidence in your character and that your conscience will be a reliable guide. I entrust my fate to your wise ministry.