autopsy won't end it
Just when it seemed that every liberal commentator on the Terri
Schiavo case was starting to sound like Barney Frank, the great
Joan Didion published a long and remarkable article on the case
in the quite far left New York Review of Books of June 9.
Frank, of course, took the occasion of the Schiavo autopsy results as
yet another opportunity to denounce Republicans as "this fanatical party
willing to impose its own views on people." For those of you still
somehow unaware, "imposing their views" is a semiofficial Democratic
meme or code phrase meaning "religious people who vote their moral views
and disagree with us."
Didion, on the other hand, cut through all the rhetoric about
imposing views and said the struggle to spare Schiavo's life was
"essentially a civil rights intervention." This is a phrase of great
clarity, particularly since Democrats have a long track record of
protecting civil rights and Republicans don't. Behind the grotesque
media circus, the two parties were essentially switching roles. In the
first round of public opinion — the polls — the GOP took a beating. But
in the long run, the American people tend to rally behind civil rights,
and the party that fights to uphold them is likely to prevail.
On the "rational" or "secular" side of the dispute, Didion wrote,
there was "very little acknowledgment that there could be large numbers
of people, not all of whom could be categorized as 'fundamentalists' or
'evangelicals,' who were genuinely troubled by the ramifications of
viewing a life as inadequate and so deciding to end it." Amen. There was
also little admission that this was a "merciful euthanasia" controversy
posing as a "right-to-die" case.
Many of us understood, as the autopsy has now shown, that Schiavo was
severely damaged, but a national psychodrama built around the alleged
need to end a life without clear consent is likely to induce anxieties
in all but the most dedicated right-to-die adherents.
Didion did not conclude that ending Schiavo's life was a wrongful
act, but she seemed to be leaning that way. She wrote: "What might have
seemed a central argument in this case — the ethical argument, the
argument about whether, when it comes to life and death, any of us can
justifiably claim the ability or the right to judge the value of any
other being's life — remained largely unexpressed, mentioned, when at
all, only to be dismissed."
That issue was slurred and muffled by the media and by shrewd, though
completely misleading, right-to-die arguments that distracted us from
the core issue of consent. George Felos, the attorney of Terri Schiavo's
husband, Michael, told Larry King, "Quality of life is one of those
tricky things because it's a very personal and individual decision. I
don't think any of us have the right to make a judgment about quality of
life for another." Here Felos piously got away with adopting a deadly
argument against his own position by presenting it as somehow bolstering
his case. This can happen only when the media are totally incurious or
already committed to your side. Michael Schiavo made a somewhat similar
eye-popping argument to King: "I think that every person in this country
should be scared. The government is going to trample all over your
private and personal matters. It's outrageous that these people that we
elect are not letting you have your civil liberties to choose what you
want when you die."
"Imagine it," Didion wrote. "You are in
your early 20s. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in
which someone has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip
bowl. 'No tubes for me,' you say as you get up to fill it. What
are the chances you have given this even a passing thought?"
Americans were indeed scared that they might one day be in Terri
Schiavo's predicament. But Michael was speaking as though Terri
Schiavo's wishes in the matter were clear and Republicans were
determined to trample them anyway. Yet her wishes, as Didion says, were
"essentially unconfirmable" and based on bits of hearsay reported by
people whose interests were not obviously her own — Michael Schiavo and
two of his relatives.
One hearsay comment — "no tubes for me" — came while Terri Schiavo
was watching television. "Imagine it," Didion wrote. "You are in your
early 20s. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in which someone
has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip bowl. 'No tubes for me,'
you say as you get up to fill it. What are the chances you have given
this even a passing thought?"
According to studies cited last year in the Hastings Center Report,
Didion reminds us, almost a third of written directives, after periods
as short as two years, no longer reflect the wishes of those who made
them. And here nothing was written down at all.
The autopsy confirms the extraordinary damage to Schiavo and
discredits those who tried to depict the husband as a wife-beater. But
the autopsy has nothing to say about the core moral issue: Do people
with profound disabilities no longer have a right to live? That issue is
still on the table.
Leo, John. "An autopsy won't end it." US News and World Report
(June 20, 2005).
Reprinted by permission of John Leo.
John Leo is a contributing editor for U.S.News & World Report,
and his column on the state of our culture appears weekly in 140
newspapers across the country. Leo has covered the social sciences and
intellectual trends for Time magazine and the New York Times.
He is also the author of two books:
Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police and a book of humor,
How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment.
He lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan.
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