Far more than legal issues are at play in Schiavo case

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post Columnist
  • Sunday, March 27, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON – One of the ways we maintain our sense of personal superiority (and by implication, the superiority of our ideas) is to focus on the unseemly behavior of those who disagree with us.

And so liberals have had a field day with the sad, sad case of Terri Schiavo. The obvious political motivation of the likes of Tom DeLay and at least some of the members of both houses of Congress who rushed through that absurd legislation a week ago, the alacrity with which President Bush, importuned by his brother, Jeb, leapt to sign the bill to keep Terri alive, and all the public hoo-haw from partisans with bigger fish to fry served to confirm the tawdriness of the worst of the right and, therefore, the sweet reason of liberal views.

Jumping on the tawdry behavior of those who disagree with us is easy. The issue itself is excruciatingly difficult.

In its simplest terms, the question is: Is Terri Schiavo dead or alive? And if we grant that she is “technically” alive, is hers a life worth continuing?

And it becomes instantly clear why we would rather make ad hominem arguments, or carry on about the wishes apparently expressed by Terri herself more than 15 years ago.

Ostensibly neutral outsiders have examined the latter issue and have arrived at the conclusion that the woman really did discuss with her husband their mutual wish not to be kept alive solely through the use of heart-lung machines, feeding tubes and other “heroic” means.

That would seem to settle the legal question. But far more than law is at issue. The Schiavo case is, among other things, a proxy for the legally resolved but still troubling debate over abortion.

Right-to-lifers understand that if they permit the quality of Terri Schiavo’s life to become the determining issue, they will have accepted the rationality of abortion for damaged fetuses and put themselves on the slippery slope that makes it hard to resist abortion on demand.

Abortion-rights advocates understand that to accept the sanctity of all life – including the persistent vegetative state of Schiavo’s – is to make abortion immoral. So we intrude into the private torment of Terri’s husband and her parents and use their agony to carry the weight of our own ideas.

But we also use it to mask the inherent difficulty of the debate. We might agree as a matter of law that the prior recorded wishes of the person whose death is at issue ought to be determinative. But it doesn’t really carry us through the deeper moral questions. I don’t wish to be kept artificially alive beyond reasonable hope of medical help, and I’ve indicated as much in my living will. I think my view should be honored. But what of the guy who doesn’t wish to go on living without the girlfriend who left him? Does he have a right to die? To call on others to help him die? Even if he has recorded and had notarized his morbid desire?

The quality-of-life standard, I am saying, is not as reliable as some of us would like to believe. The question of ending life – of which life is not worth prolonging – is never easy, nor should it ever become easy.

Even beyond the philosophical questions, there is another matter that the Schiavo case calls to mind: Our unease with death.

Much of our knowledge of ancient cultures has been gleaned from the unwillingness of the living to acknowledge the death of the dead. Not just pharaohs and kings, but ordinary folk as well, have hoped to preserve life even after death.

How much more tempting it must be with loved ones whose blood still circulates, and whose faces seem to smile.

I mean no insult to mention the thousands of people who have their beloved pets mounted in order to keep them near after death. But it seems clear to me that we will develop the means to blur even further the line between death and life – machines to mimic bodily functions, induce facial expressions and give the appearance of life to the dead. Is it so hard to imagine that some who can afford it would choose to keep their dear ones permanently at ersatz peace behind gauzy curtains and dim lights? Are you certain we’re not creeping toward human taxidermy?

The law seems to be on the side of Terri Schiavo’s husband, though only a heartless ideologue would dismiss the feelings of her parents to the contrary.

The questions of death – when to forestall it, when to assist it, and who gets to decide – are agonizingly difficult.

May they ever remain so.

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to willrasp@washpost.com.

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