Wednesday, March 23, 2005

My Two (hundred) Cents

I started commenting on a friend's post regarding the Terri Shiavo case and realized I wanted to say more than was appropriate for a comment (I've made that mistake before). So I figure, what the hey, everybody's sticking his or her opinion everywhere it will(or won't) stick (we Americans do this well), so I might as well throw mine out, too.

I'm not sure I can say what I want to say without seeming to come down in judgment on Terri's husband, which isn't my intent. He has undoubtedly suffered much and endured much and, to be honest, I have folded like a house of cards under much less. Be that as it may, I believe real judgment is possible in this case. Most of us probably think of the word judgment in a pejorative sense, being that the highest virtue of our day is Tolerance, which has somehow been neatly propped up across from Judgment and declared it's opposite. But the main definition of the word only implies an ability to discern or form an opinion based on available information. I suppose we feel that nobody ever has enough or complete information about another person and therefore is in no position to judge. I agree with that statement where it concerns the motive or intent of a person. But I also think it would be a big mistake to assume that we also cannot judge ideas, simply because they happen to be attached to a person.

What are the ideas in this case and can we separate them from the Shiavos? I think we can. So, without casting aspersions on Mr. Shiavo's motive or character, I'd like to explore the separate, ethological issues.

The first, most obvious issue is one of life: the quality and purpose of it and how these two things relate one to the other. There are two grids (other than the eternal one, presupposing God) through which to look at this issue; one is the importance of Terri's life to her and the other is the importance of her life to others.

Michael Shiavo claims that Terri's life is not worth living to her and that she would want him to let her die. This is no more than an assumption and is absolutely impossible to determine. I have seen individuals with Downs Syndrome or other mental/physical incapacities who have enjoyed life very much in their limited way. The funny thing about limitations is that we who do not have them assume that nobody could happily live with them (because God knows, we couldn't). I read an article the other day in which Mr. Miller, a deaf man, said (with regard to cochlear implants) , "I do not want one for myself. I am very happy being deaf. To me, this is like asking a black or Asian person if he/she would take a pill to turn into a white person." I, as a hearing person, could not understand what he meant. Doesn't he know what he is missing? Well, no, he doesn't. But it doesn't matter , because he doesn't know and therefore is not, to his mind, missing anything. My eight-year-old son cannot imagine or desire the experience of falling in love but this does not mean that being an eight-year-old boy is a less fulfilling life than being a grown man; in fact, it may be happier. Certainly Terri's case is different from that of a hearing-impaired man or my eight-year old son. But it is similar in this sense; that even if her husband had proof that Terri, when well, asked him never to let her live in a mentally and physically impaired state, it would only be like stating that a hearing person thought he couldn't bear not hearing or a boy swore that he would never kiss a girl. We don't actually know what life is like for Terri or if she wants (in whatever way she is able) to keep it.

The other part to this question of her life's value pertains to the people who love her. In this case, her parents love her and don't want her to die and are willing to sacrifice much of their own comfort in order to care for her. If her husband loves her, too, but is unable to care for her, he could hand her over to the care of her parents. Perhaps he truly believes that Terri would want to die and he is fighting for her good. However, she doesn't appear to be in pain, she smiles, and as we established above, there is no sure way to know that she does not want her life, given that she cannot communicate her desire.

The second ethical issue I see in this story regards the nature of human commitment or love. This is the area that I can hardly avoid seeming to condemn Michael Shiavo. So I will try to divorce it from him altogether and take the general question my friend posed, "how can anyone live with their life-partner being mentally and physically incapacitated for so long?". I understand this question and ask it myself. Still, when I try to determine the defining assumptions behind a term like "life-partner" or "marriage" or even one as general as "love" I don't find that our perceived ability (or lack thereof) to withstand hardship really has a whole lot to do with it. Many wedding vows still include the lines, "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health". The love which first prompts two people to make this promise to eachother may be filled with emotion, good feelings, an appreciation of what the beloved gives or makes the lover feel, but it is not meant to stop there. It is meant to blossom into a deep and abiding love which always protects and always cares for it's beloved, even when the other is unable to reciprocate. That is why lovers marry and pledge to care for one another. Otherwise, why not just love until the fuzzy feelings fade (which they will) or until the other person gets fat or ornery or sick or difficult to care for? I even heard recently that couples are changing their wedding vows to say "as long as our love shall last", rather than the traditional "until death do us part". How can there be any real trust between people who are saying, in effect, "At some point in time, I will probably not love you. But for now, give me your soul and we'll make the best of it". Take a look at what Dr. Robertson McQuilkin had to say when he resigned his position as president of Columbia Bible College to care for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer's Disease:
"My dear wife, Muriel, has been in failing mental health for about eight years. So far I have been able to carry both her ever-growing needs and my leadership responsibilities at Columbia Bible College. But recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and almost none of the time I am away from her. It is not just "discontent." She is filled with fear–even terror–that she has lost me and always goes in search of me when I leave home. It is clear to me that she needs me now full-time. The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago, when I promised to care for Muriel "in sickness and in health, till death do us part." So as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her for the next 40 years I would not be out of debt. Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more; I love Muriel. She is a delight to me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I do not have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person."

I suppose this leads into a third consideration, which goes hand in hand with the first question of an individual life's value. We, the lovers, the care-givers, can actually become better persons through selfless and tenacious love of a helpless person. A 22 year-old severely autistic boy who attended my church died recently. I don't know what his mental capacity was but I know he couldn't communicate and couldn't be left alone. I watched his family (mom, dad, brother, sister) relate to him with unbelievable love. His sister held his hand and led him around, his dad rubbed his back to calm him when he began shaking and murmuring loudly. I don't know if their love made a difference to him (though I would venture to guess that it did, pretty significantly) but I know that it made a difference to them. The whole family radiated love; they were kind, patient, understanding, giving people.

The last question that came to my mind as I thought about the Schiavo Case is one of death and suffering. Terri is not being artificially caused to breathe and is not in a coma and cannot, therefore, be relieved of the life support and die unconsciously. Instead, she is being starved, which does not seem very humane to me even if we are talking about an animal and not a human being. I read today that Terri's parents are not allowed even to give her a sip of water to wet her dry mouth. This does not seem consistent with respect for human dignity and life, even if one takes the "right to die" position.

Yeah, so there are my thoughts on the matter. Much too long and most likely not very popular.

Ah, well.


Anonymous said...

Spot on!

Yeah, so there are my thoughts on the matter. Much too long and most likely not very popular.

What's the point of reading a short, "Me too!" journal entry? I say tell it like you see it and don't hold back or stop typing until you've said all you want to say.


laura said...

girl!!! Now I had to go and do my own "Part Duex" of all of this. You brought up some good points.

laura said...

Did you know that Terri was bulimic? I was reading it in this article:

Michael Ciani said...

I tend to think that with the United States rapidly becoming not only the fattest, but also one of the most ignorant of "First World" nations, that the more popular a position, the more suspect it is. And as a fellow writer, I should say that there is no such thing as "much too long." ;)