Thursday, March 31, 2005


Mrs. Schiavo has gone to her reward. Undoubtedly there will be some bickering over the funeral arrangements and the autopsy, but she is past the contention now.

Those of us still here continue to face tricky issues. The effort to paint a coalition of criminals (including a rapist, a torturer, attempted murderers) as a culture of life has left some people comparing liberals to a "culture of death." That feeds into eliminationist rhetoric, and it deepens the divide this country is struggling with.

There is one major issue that this incident raised. There are several points that it can be taken to illustrate (the hypocrisy of conservatives, the anti-science bias of conservatives, the divide between authoritarian conservatives their libertarian colleagues, etc.). The issue, fundamentally, is how do we handle people in the brief twilight between life and death and who cannot express their wishes?

Can Mrs. Schiavo's discussions with her husband and friends be taken as an informed refusal (as opposed to informed consent)? The courts said so. I'm inclined to agree. If she had a written document, it would be better. But what if there was nothing. What if we're dealing with a child like the one who died in Texas. He could never express his desires. His mother wanted to keep him on life support, the hospital decided it was too expensive, and that he never had a chance of recovery.

There is a line between life and death, but it isn't perfect. As I discussed before, death isn't instant. It's a process that, with care, can last months. A person drifts further away, and then rushes across a threshold. If you hook up enough tubes, you can trap that person with one foot on either side of the line. Should that be a tie that goes to the runner? Is one foot on the line out of bounds? Who gets to referee? Who are the line judges? WIth enough medical care, that threshold can turn into a football field, and teams of lawyers can rush toss "Hail Mary"s, punt, rush, pass and tackle their way toward one end-zone or the other.

What should the result be? Can society declare that the 50 yard line, or the 10, or the 1, is far enough? I don't think so. I think that the referee has to be someone close, someone who understands the person in every way, and whose judgment is as close as possible to the sick person's. Different people want different things, and any absolute rule will fail some people.

The idea of my body being kept functional after my mind has disappeared disturbs me more than any spittoon joke could. It makes my skin crawl. I don't think I'd want my heart to be kept pumping after my mind was destroyed. Other people see it differently. I might change my mind.

This is the conversation we need to be having, not partisan slander campaigns.