Private tragedy as political farce

Both sides of the sordid legal scrap over Terri Schiavo devalue the meaning of life.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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In a debate that began late last Sunday evening and ended shortly after midnight on Monday, the US House of Representatives voted 203 to 58 for an emergency bill. The Senate, with no objections, had approved the measure on Sunday afternoon by a voice vote with just a few senators on hand. US President George W Bush interrupted his vacation to fly in and sign the bill into law, some time around 1am on Monday morning.

Some said the atmosphere reminded them of a vote on going to war. ‘I have been here 13 years, and I have never seen anything like this before’, said Republican Representative Donald Manzullo, of Illinois.

What was the subject of this emergency legislation? To forbid the removal of a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, a woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state for some 13 years. The hastily passed legislation asks a federal judge to review the case and to require feeding to resume.

This is a tragic case, but of much smaller proportions than might be implied by the congressional and presidential attention. Terri Schiavo lapsed into her present state after a heart attack in 1990, caused possibly by lack of potassium. Her husband Michael, her legal guardian, petitioned to let her die. But her parents have spent seven years fighting to keep her alive, saying that she can still lead a fulfilling life. This conflict of opinion has meant that no fewer than 19 judges in six courts have studied the case at length, commissioning many medical experts. In each, the court has concurred with Mr Schiavo that she should be allowed to die. The federal judge reviewing the case, rendering his verdict this week as a result of the emergency legislation, agreed with Mr Schiavo.

Why have America’s leaders become so animated about the life of one woman who has not really been conscious for over 13 years?

First, the debate allowed the Republicans to shore up their anti-abortion vote without having to sponsor divisive and difficult legislation. Bush argued that: ‘In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favour of life.’ This is a win-win situation for the Republicans. Few Democrats resisted, aware of the potential backlash. The very specific object of the legislation, which pertained only to Mrs Schiavo, meant that there was little threat of controversy.

Second, the case allowed politicians uncertain of what they should do or say on major issues to take a ‘brave’ moral stand, to demonstrate their uncompromisingly ethical stance. The rapid mobilisation of the nation’s most powerful men and women, united in purpose, serves to disguise the emptiness of their political missions.

Unlike politicians, Mrs Schiavo is surely in a ‘lose-lose’ situation. But whatever the outcome of this case, its effects will resonate far beyond her Florida hospice. The consequence of both sides of the argument, unfortunately, is to denigrate the value of life.

On one hand, assisted suicide advocates tell us that life is not worth living for those with diminished physical capacities. Here ‘dignity’ is identified with the ability to go to the toilet unaided, and other aspects of life are deemed pointless.

On the other hand are the pro-lifers who, in the case of Mrs Schiavo, identify life with the ability to breathe. Although her family produced a video of her apparently responding to their stimuli, doctors analysing the tape have said that this was an accidental nerve response rather than a real response. Had Mrs Schiavo no ability to breathe unaided, there would be little controversy, since she would fall into the established definition of ‘persistent vegetative state’. Those fighting to preserve her life are defining it only as the ability to breathe, just as anti-abortion groups define life in similarly limited physical terms. Surely this cheapens life as much as the Dr Kevorkians of this world, who dispatch death on demand.

A worse effect of this case, however, is the further extension of regulation into what have until recently been private tragedies rather than public morality plays. These should be humane decisions taken on the grounds of medical hopelessness. As Florida Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz noted, opposing the bill, many families have faced similar awful decisions, including her own. ‘No one felt it essential that I file legislation to stop it’, she said. ‘This type of end-of-life, gut-wrenching decision happens every day.’

Now, thanks to activists on both sides, these very human and private situations have come into the spotlight. Medical ethics committees, bureaucrats and form-fillers are no doubt sharpening their pencils in anticipation, and doctors will have to make these sombre decisions in the public glare. The Schiavo case is surely one more step along this undesirable road.

Read on:

Ten myths about assisted suicide, by Kevin Yuill

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Topics Politics


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