(The link above is decidedly one-sided. But it's very hard to find a site that even attempts to present Michael Sciavo's side of the story.)
In 1990, Terri Schiavo had a heart attack, and suffered brain damage that has left her in an impaired state.
After that, the story begins to get muddy.
...continued in full post...
We may presume that malpractice occurred, since a malpractice award was paid. (Actually, two, it appears, in two different trials.)
The issue that has propeled this case to the front page is the decision to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die from lack of food and water. Her husband takes the position that she is in a persistent vegetative state, and it's best to let her go. Her parents and the rest of her family insist that she is functioning at a level higher than that of a vegetable, and is aware of and interacts with family members who come to visit her.
Her husband states that Terri once stated she wouldn't want to live the way she's living now. Her parents insist that she has never taken that position, and cite the fact that she's a devout Catholic.
Unfortunately, she never left anything in writing, so all we have is hearsay.
Question 1: When all we have is hearsay, and it's a literal life-or-death matter, what should our default position be?
Question 1.1: If our default position is to favor one option, what weight of evidence should it take to move us over to the other side?
One reason this is such a hot topic is that it provides a perfect excuse for people to insult each others religious beliefs. Two large and vocal groups of people are looking at the same situation, and arriving at the same conclusion: the other side is a bunch of extremist religious nutcases.
Back in September, 2001, I wrote an Essay called Schroedinger's Fetus. In it, I explored the notion that abortion is one of those topics that is controversial because it brings into public view religious beliefs and ideas that people, for the most part, keep private.
Terri Sciavo's case is another such topic.
In exploring whether Terri's life is worth preserving, we have to examine our own beliefs about how valuable human life is, whether this value is intrinsic or contingent on something, and at what point this value attaches. We have to confront these ideas in ourselves and in others.
A utilitarian position could hold that if a person is no longer productive, or has no chance of becoming productive in the foreseeable future, his or her life becomes valueless. Another position could be the absolutist position that bodily function must be maintained at all costs from the time the baby emerges from the womb (or the egg is fertilized) until the body fails irreversibly, and the life of a a brain-dead vegetable is just as valuable as yours or mine.
Unfortunately, as long as we have limited resources, we'll have to make choices. We don't have to abandon our grandparents on ice floes so the rest of the tribe can live, but there are still hard cases where preserving life takes enough resources to cost several lives.
But this is not one of those cases.
The resources to keep Terri Sciavo alive until she dies naturally of some other cause are available. There are people willing to pay for her care, and there are people willing to assume the role of caretaker. Arguing against this, her husband wants to hold her to his recollection of a directive he, and apparently no one else, heard her give.
The Wiccan Rede says, "if it harms none, do what you will". At first glance, starvation and dehydration are both harmful, and allowing Terri to die by these courses will cause her harm.
We could wander off into metaphysical Neverland by supposing that maybe it's more harmful to be suspended between life and death as Terri is, and that in the long run it's better to release her to whatever comes after life. The problem there is, at what point do we draw the line? More to the point, given that we're always going to have to draw a line, and it's always going to be a fuzzy line that slips back and forth as circumstances change, when a line shows any sign of sliding, in what direction do we push it?
Do we try to keep people alive as long as possible, or do we try to send them into the afterlife, whatever it may be, as long as possible? (By the way, I support capital punishment. For this discussion, I'm excluding murderers from consideration. I judge them to have forfeited their right to this sort of protection. We can argue over that topic some other day.)
There are some fallacies that have floated around in religious circles. These are often known as heresies, though that term has become unpopular as it's been used as an excuse to kill people.
One popular heresy has been that once a Christian is saved by grace, he is beyond the reach of the law, and need not obey it any more. He can freely sin.
Another practice, which I'm sure would have been found heretical at the time, and which, indeed, was probably a historical myth, was that of friars baptizing indiginous newborns in the New World and then immediately killing them. The theory here was that the baby's sould would immediately go to heaven before the parents and the rest of the tribe had a chance to corrupt it.
Now, why would these be heretical?
Indeed, why bother with life at all? After all, in five or ten billion years, we're all dead anyway. Whatever there is in the way of an afterlife will be as populated as it's going to get, at least from this chunk of space. Wouldn't it be better to send everyone to the loving arms of the Goddess right now and have done with it?
The reason antinoimianism is a heresy, and the reason you don't kill baptized babies and send them straight to heaven, and the reason you life your own life as well as you can, and indeed, the reason there's a universe with life in it at all comes down to two words.
I can't prove it; it's an article of faith. Yet as a foundation it supports a great deal.
The universe exists, and we are in it, and we are capable of thinking these thoughs about it, because It Matters.
Human life is precious, and human thoughts and feelings are precious because It Matters.
In the case of Terri Sciavo, particularly since there seems to be plenty of doubt and good people on both sides can disagree, we should err on the side of caution, and preserving life. We can always take it later.