Sunday, March 20, 2005

Much Ado About Nothing

Terri Schiavo...I know the name. You know the name. Congress knows the name. Terri's case has been floating around Florida's judicial system since her husband settled the malpractice case against her doctors for 1 million dollars. After winning the settlement in 1993, he decided to pull the plug in accordance with Terri's wishes. Her parents, and siblings attempted to intervene, hoping to save her life and become the primary supporters of Terri. The husband (perhaps understandably) wished to be shed of the burden of continuing to care for his wife, and argued that he and Terri had discussed what to do in such a situation and agreed that he should pull the plug. The situation is amazingly unfortunate. In 1990, Terri suffered from heart failure that left her partially brain damaged. By no means is she fully comatose, she responds to external interaction and may have some understanding of the world around her. In a just and perfect world, a woman who displays such signs of life would never be forced to face an early death. In a just and perfect world however, no woman would ever fall upon such misfortune.

In assessing the political landscape of this situation, there are 2 main impassioned issues that are vibrantly related: 1) The sanctity of life. It has been the conservative, and religious position that all human life should uniformly be preserved, from conception to natural death, and that every effort should be made to protect a life that can be saved. 2) The sanctity of and definition of marriage. In this case, one of the fundamental tenets of the legal protections of marriage is being put to a test.

Unfortunately, this is one of the dilemmas to which there is no clear solution. On a legal basis, Congressional Republicans are correct (and correspondingly Timmy and the Democrats are just plain wrong). There is absolutely no legal argument why the Republicans cannot intervene in this and expedite the process of going to the courts. There are, however, many reasons that they may not want to:

A) The sanctity of marriage. Even if Terri's husband is a real S.O.B. he is her husband, and as such appropriately has more legal standing than her parents or her siblings. Indeed, after emancipation or age of majority, save a legal document giving them power of attorney, they have no authority over her. Her husband, on the other hand, has that right. Although the legislation sponsored by the Republicans is just to have that question decided by a higher court, the decision for the legislation is motivated by a prioritizing of Terri's life over her husband's claim, which by legal authority is the same as her own, to end it.

B) The question of entitlement. To introduce a policy that all life must necessarily be saved is a very dangerous one. To put it simply, it is impossible for us to keep all people alive all of the time. As technology advances, we will have the capacity to keep people living through debilitating ailments, and old age. Unfortunately, we will not correspondingly have the capacity of wealth to do so. Ms. Schiavo is now a ward of the state. The Republicans must ask themselves whether they want to encourage similar wards of the state.

C) Slippery slope. In our justice system there are any number of decisions made by courts in which one side or the other appeals. Sometimes the appeal is heard, sometimes it is denied, and sometimes it is caught up in black tape. Every one of these cases cannot get a special injunction from Congress, and furthermore, it is important that Congress not "choose sides" on any case.

D) Political Capital. The Republicans have indeed been successful building a pro-life conservative base. But they must not neglect that such a base is complimented by a pseudo-libertarian states right/individual right core. This decision could alienate and/or divide the Republican base.

This all having been stated. I support the Republicans decision. According to the current law in Florida, even though the husband has justifiable say over decisions of his wife, that does not extend to the right to terminate her life support. She is not "brain dead" the legally qualify-able definition for the probability of returning to livelihood. The Florida court made a decision based upon interpretive activism, not the law itself. The consequence of this decision, without Congressional intervention, would be a woman's life. Congress is preventing an inadvertent murder, a noble goal despite its many consequences.

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2 Comments:

  • Your perception of this woman's medical condition is the first of many wrong premises in the post. She is not fully comatose, but neither can she respond to external interaction. No doctor who ever testified under oath has said such a thing, so I am assuming you are getting the information from the parents, who understandably want to have every hope that their daughter can become what she once was. Unfortunately, the Schiavo parents have posted a list of 17 "doctors" that give them hope, but none of their examinations took place in person (they used the four minute video from the parents' website that the media has been using), and many of their remedies are based on unpublished anecdotal evidence of treatment that includes off-label uses of Alzheimer's drugs or shock therapy. Besides, external "interaction" doesn't necessarily mean she's not in a PVS, a persistent vegetative state. This is from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:
    Individuals in such a state have lost their thinking abilities and awareness of their surroundings, but retain non-cognitive function and normal sleep patterns. Even though those in a persistent vegetative state lose their higher brain functions, other key functions such as breathing and circulation remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur, and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli. They may even occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. Although individuals in a persistent vegetative state may appear somewhat normal, they do not speak and they are unable to respond to commands.
    So the presence of smiles, grimaces, vocalizations, and eye movements alone is not relevant to the question of whether Schiavo has retained any degree of consciousness or may benefit from therapy. I am not a doctor, but I know that evaluating a patient based on a video produced by people who have an agenda (I understand the parents' agenda, my point is to criticize those who abuse her family's problem to gain political capital) is not a credible way to diagnose.

    You say that there is no clear solution, yet you say that the Democrats are just plain wrong. I'm going to have to disagree.

    What do Republicans gain from this? They drag out the case to a federal court in which the same ruling is laid down, and the parents appeal again, dragging down the process. Something like 17 judges have participated in this case. Countless doctors, as well. In all likelihood, there is no point in federalizing this case. But there is a point in the Republican mindset - scoring points with the pro-life base that slanders Michael Schiavo by claiming he abused her and stands to make millions (by the way, that million dollars has been all but squandered keeping her "alive" for the last twelve years.

    People have legal rights to refuse medical services, and so do their guardians if they are incapable. Terri Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed because the Florida courts have determined that she would not have wanted it. She is not being deliberately killed, she is being allowed to die the death she would have wanted. The GOP has no principled objections to the system by which guardians are appointed. They aren't arguing that parents are more appropriate guardians than spouses in general, or that the Federal courts should arbitrate all guardianship cases, or even that the withdrawal of feeding tubes is unethical. All you guys care about is reversing a decision on a case in which your party and the people that fund and control it have a personal stake.

    I still don't understand where the judicial activism is in this case. It's not as if a single judge laid down this decision that Michael Schiavo has power of attorney. Numerous state judges have reached this conclusion, at the highest level of state courts. Soon, federal courts will reach the same conclusion, and you'll still decry that as activism - further proving my point that activism for you guys means judicial decisions you don't agree with.

    George Bush signed a law in Texas that allows such a decision to be made by the spouse, nay, expedites that decision, even in the case of people who are fully conscious! Is this not hypocrisy? 48 Senate Republicans voted, without success, thank God, to cut Medicaid funding last week, money that goes to keep patients like this alive. Is this not further hypocrisy?

    But go ahead, act like you saved Terri Schiavo from murder. You also saved her from not defecating in a plastic bag for the rest of her life, from having her cerebral cortex continue to be eroded away, replaced by inert spinal fluid, and from allowing an entire group of people move on and remember her for the way she was, not the unfortunate way she is. Keep calling this murder, and the people who suport this decision (which now I believe is up to 63%) muderers. Such language only reveals your extremist agenda, and an unwillingness to see this issue as a family problem, and not the GOP's problem.

    So what’s at issue here, if it’s not guardianship, state’s rights, or anything else. It’s the sanctity of life argument. And sorry guys, that just doesn’t cut it. I believe in the sanctity of life, but the life that is sacred, in my view, is the life of a person, which in the present case ended many years ago. It’s sad and depressing, but Terri Schiavo is no longer a person. Genetic humanity is not a sufficient condition for being a moral agent. Conditions of personhood are self-consciousness, capacity for language, reflexive thought, reason, etc. Schiavo lacks all of these. This doesn’t mean she should be killed immediately, but it does mean that her legal guardian has the right to end whatever sliver of life she has.

    I expect much disagreement on the last paragraph, but it’s good to get a lively discussion going again in these parts. Who knew it would take Terri Schiavo to do it?

    By Blogger rabbit, at March 21, 2005 at 10:51 AM  

  • Ah, rabbit, there is a conservative deep down inside of you after all. I don't even think that statistics about her medical information are relevant here because there is disagreement over her state. To be honest with you, I don't trust the Parents information any more or less than the information you just provided. There will never be agreement on her medical condition. It does seem interesting to me that you don't latch on to the larger constitutional issue here and take the so obviously liberal position adopted by my own party. In fact, it isn't much different to the way the Republicans have come to adopt a surprisingly liberal foreign policy, another post for another day. I never thought I would be inspired by the words of Barney Frank.

    T

    By Blogger Timmy, at March 21, 2005 at 11:25 AM  

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