Was Terri Schiavo 'Allowed to Die' or Was She Killed?

Now that Terri Schiavo is dead, what should we make of the entire circus that erupted in her final days? From the seemingly endless peregrination between levels of courts to the vigils held by pro-life groups that turned her hospice into a carnival of signs and gimmicks, to the predictably sanctimonious and unconstitutional intervention by truly odious killers like Tom Delay and George Bush, the hypocrisy on all sides was startling, but all too familiar.

The hypocrisy of the pro-life side is typical. They are full of holy rage at the death of one woman made famous by the news media, but silent at the surely hundreds if not thousands of the other Terri and Terrance Schiavo's around the country facing the same fate. And their silence at the human carnage and toll on innocent life imposed by their champion, that Christian, Compassionate-Conservative President, is well known as well.

However, less remarked upon was the hypocrisy of the Left's newfound enthusiasm for federalism. But what is obvious to all is that the Left has degenerated into a purely opportunistic movement.

What I find particularly sad is the reverence given by nearly all sides to obedience to the courts, as if a man or woman in a black robe has some unique insight or wisdom beyond the scope of us mere mortals.

And what surprised me about the court decisions that repeatedly reaffirmed the husband's claim to be Terri Schiavo's legal guardian, and that was pointed out by a Canadian professor of ethics, was the issue of the husband's obvious conflict of interest in the case. The fact that for the past 10 years he has been in a common-law marriage with another women who he now has two children by should obviously be considered as a bias against a dispassionate appraisal of what Terri Schiavo's wishes were or might have been.

At least one benefit of this entire sad affair is the apparent rise in people writing living wills for just such emergencies. But this whole experience leaves me troubled. Of all the questions that this case raised, maybe instead what should be asked is whether the feeding tube should have been inserted in the first place when she initially suffered her brain damage.

From what I've heard, Terri Schiavo was beyond any hope of recovery after her heart attack had starved her brain of oxygen. If this was indeed the case, I have to ask why a feeding tube was used at all, since the difficult decision would have to be made soon to remove that tube and starve her body to death.

While the entire tragedy was unfolding over the past few weeks, my initial reaction was revulsion over the thought that, based solely on the claim of off-hand comments that she made while watching an episode of ER years before her heart attack, she would be starved to death, something which it is illegal to do to a dog in the United States. It was my reaction that this was de facto euthanasia. The courts were enforcing not doctor-assisted suicide, but rather doctor assisted homicide.

But now that I've been thinking about it, I wonder if that really applies.

In his great book on morality, The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard shocked many readers by arguing that a mother cannot morally be forced to feed or otherwise sustain the life of her newborn child. To force her to do so through the threat of violence or intervention would itself be morally impermissible. Happily, though, in general, human nature is compassionate and generous, and doesn't require force to help the helpless. Some of this can be seen in the throngs that protested to keep Terri Schiavo alive, although there were many among them whose motives were suspect.

From the videos that were shown of her, both those from 2002 and the more recent ones that have been shown, although it appears she recognizes her mother and others, so she certainly isn't 'brain-dead,' it appears to me that Terri Schiavo as a result of her severe brain damage had regressed to the mental status of an infant, lacking the motor control to feed herself and the full mental capacity to survive on her own.

If Terri Schiavo had become in effect an adult-sized infant, is it legitimate to claim a moral necessity to continue to keep her alive, such as the Vatican and other forces have?

As a self-owning individual who no longer can exercise her sovereignty over herself, but who unfortunately did not leave a written record of her wishes, it seems to me to have been up to those who were willing to incur the costs of maintaining her life. At first this was the hospice and her insurer, but later it may have been her parents if her husband (who is widely described as creepy and sleazy) had relented or been denied guardianship, or even her husband as it eventually turned out.

The question here is whether allowing someone to die by denying any intervention to save their lives, even if just food and water, whether for a day old infant or 41 year old Terri Schiavo, constitutes the imposition of the death penalty against an innocent mentally handicapped woman, in which case she was in effect executed, or whether what happened constitutes euthanasia.

Euthanasia, i.e., doctor-assisted suicide or 'mercy-killing,' usually is thought to involve deliberately killing the patient with a lethal injection of some type, i.e., directly intervening to hasten death.

But if a person has a will that says that if they are brain dead or comatose that they wish to be given a lethal injection to painfully end their life, many in the pro-life movement would and do object to this, chiefly because they do not comprehend the fact of individual self-ownership and therefore the right to suicide (with voluntary participation by others if necessary), and argue that doctor assisted suicide is a betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. Yet, these are the same forces, by and large, who support the death penalty and executions by lethal injection or worse of prisoners.

Maybe it would be better if we re-examined the idea that it is moral to extend a life that can no longer take care of itself, in particular by feeding the body, when obviously and inevitably, the decision must be made at some point and by someone other than the patient, to remove that intervention and allow the person to starve to death anyway. If a person cannot naturally maintain their life without resort to the unnatural means of a feeding tube or artificial respiration, maybe they should be allowed to die naturally after all.

As sad as it is to say, I think it was a mistake from the earliest days to prolong Terri Schiavo's life for so long after her brain damage rendered her beyond recovery.

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Adam Young's picture
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