Along the Tracks

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Backwards and bizarre

From the March 26 Northwest Signal:

I realize the words “Terri Schiavo” could well eliminate half my readership in 13 keystrokes (space included), but please bear with me a moment longer before going out to scrape snow from your car or wash the mud from your dog’s paws on this fine spring day.

Few stories have provided such fertile ground for commentators such as myself, who love to till the fields of hypocrisy. Terri’s case is so mixed up, mashed, spun, rinsed, folded, spindled and mutilated that I find myself both empathetic and repulsed by every side, mostly at the same time.

Consider how many of those chanting “Save Terri’s life!” just came from protesting stem cell research which might someday cure her. Consider how many arguing Terri should die just completed marches against the “cruelty” of the death penalty. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have come out favoring an absolute interpretation of “guardianship” which differs little from slavery. Lawyers demanding a constitutional amendment to protect the “sanctity of marriage” wish to take away spousal rights in this relationship.

I saw Tom Harken and Tom Delay standing together at a podium.

Right now in this country, some people - probably quite a few people - are being prosecuted for cruelty to animals because they starved their pets. Meanwhile, people are demanding that Terri Schiavo be starved to death. Sure they call it “removing artificial life support,” but starvation and dehydration are the result.

This is one of those “facts” of the Schiavo case that seem far less factual upon inspection: When did food and water become “extreme medical intervention”? If you keep food and water away from me, I’ll die too, and while many of my critics would argue I am “brain dead,” that hardly seems justification to kill me.

It’s like the medieval “trial by ordeal,” where the accused is placed in a situation which spells certain doom. If the person somehow survives, he or she must be innocent. Maybe if Terri sits up and asks for a Mr. Pibb, we’ll declare her worthy of life.

Wouldn’t it be less cruel to throw Terri in a swimming pool, like they used to do in the good ol’ days of the Inquisition? If she actually comes up for air, she should live. If not, at least it would be less cruel than dying from thirst.

Oh yes - I’ve heard the argument: “Terri can’t feel anything” or “death by starvation is peaceful” (they usually leave out the thirst part, which will kill her much sooner). This argument displays intentional ignorance. Basic feelings are instinctual; even a worm contracts from pain. Terri’s lack of muscle and motor control may hide the signs of feeling, but by all accounts I’ve read, her brain stem is still fully functional. That’s where the pain, thirst and hunger drives all reside. She may not know who she is, but you can be quite sure she’s thirsty right now (if she hasn’t yet passed).

Even considering the above, if Terri had declared her wishes in a living will, this story wouldn’t have made the Pictowatchta Herald, let alone the national media. She didn’t, and now, while she suffers the pangs of death, we get to suffer the politicians and lawyers. In the past year or so, this story has bounced from the realm of courts to the realm of legislators and back again. Usually, when an unfortunate and troubling event captures the spotlight, politicians will step forward and proudly announce their efforts to deal with the “root causes.” The Terri Schiavo case has been very different - the politicians seem determined not to even consider the root causes, instead focusing entirely on this single case with legislation and legal actions which are narrowly tailored to this particular woman in this particular conundrum.

What are the “root causes” here? First, there is the question of guardianship. Spouses typically become the guardians of their partners when illness or injury impair that person’s ability to make decisions. This is wonderful and right in a good marriage, frightening and cruel in a bad one. Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, makes an unsatisfying, unsympathetic - even inhuman - advocate for Terri. Setting aside his failure to provide court-ordered treatment in the past and his refusal to involve other family members in Terri’s care, Michael’s decision to start life with a new partner while his disabled old one was totally dependent upon him would be grounds for divorce if Terri could make that choice. She can’t, because he gets to make the choices for her - including, as it turns out, the choice to die of thirst. With such a broad power, it’s hard to see how other guardians can be charged with cruelty when they fail to take proper care of their wards.

Six months on the couch in their own filth? Well, they told me that’s what they wanted.
Second, the “right-to-die” question is being decided in the patchwork jurisdictions of state legislators and state courts. Michael Schiavo’s strong position in Florida could well be weak in another state - it might even have been limited had Terri’s parents’ lawsuit first come before a judge in a different district of Florida. In Oregon, doctors can prescribe medication which will ease the patient into death. Yet Jack “Dr. Death” Kervorkian sits in a Michigan prison.

The action of Congress at the beginning of this week was not an example of overreach, but of underreach. They didn’t seek to answer the “root causes” above. They tried to force federal courts to answer them instead. Those courts have refused, quite justifiably. The judges and justices clearly believe this is an issue for the states and Congress to work out, and laws aimed at a single person cannot gloss over those larger questions - a conservative, strict-constructionist reading of the law and the Constitution.

Who ramrodded “Terri’s Bill” through Congress, and who signed it into law? Conservative strict-constructionists who, I might add, are threatening to change Senate rules and potentially shut down Congress so they can get more conservative strict-constructionists on the federal bench. Judges who would undoubtedly rule against them as well.

Hypocrisy at its fullest, there for all to see, on all sides.

Meanwhile, the real Terri Schiavo - the young woman, the friend, the wife, the daughter - is forgotten and lost. That is the real tragedy.

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