THE QUIESCENT BRAIN AND PUBLIC EXECUTION, Part Two

Mark Steyn has republished two articles he wrote five years ago on the occasion of the judicial murder of Terri Schiavo, here is the second of those articles:

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HERE’S YOUR SHROUD AND WHAT’S YOUR HURRY? Print E-mail
Five Years Ago
Sunday, 28 March 2010
To mark half a decade since Terri Schiavo was put to death, we’re republishing two columns this weekend. Here’s the second, from The Chicago Sun-Times:

A couple of decades back, north of the border, it was discovered that some overzealous types in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been surreptitiously burning down the barns of Quebec separatists. The Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, shrugged off the controversy and blithely remarked that, if people were so upset by the Mounties illegally burning down barns, perhaps he’d make the burning of barns by Mounties legal. As the columnist George Jonas commented:

It seemed not to occur to him that it isn’t wrong to burn down barns because it’s illegal, but it’s illegal to burn down barns because it’s wrong. Like other statist politicians, Mr Trudeau… either didn’t see, or resented, that right and wrong are only reflected by the laws, not determined by them.

That’s how I feel about the Terri Schiavo case. I’m neither a Floridian nor a lawyer, and, for all I know, it may be legal under Florida law for the state to order her to be starved to death. But it is still wrong.

This is not a criminal, not a murderer, not a person whose life should be in the gift of the state. So I find it repulsive, and indeed decadent, to have her continued existence framed in terms of “plaintiffs” and “petitions” and “en banc review” and “de novo” and all the other legalese. Mrs Schiavo has been in her present condition for 15 years. Whoever she once was, this is who she is now – and, after a decade and a half, there is no compelling reason to kill her. Any legal system with a decent respect for the status quo – something too many American judges are increasingly disdainful of – would recognize that her present life, in all its limitations, is now a well-established fact, and it is the most grotesque judicial overreaching for any court at this late stage to decide enough is enough. It would be one thing had a doctor decided to reach for the morphine and “put her out of her misery” after a week in her diminished state; after 15 years, for the courts to treat her like a death-row killer who’s exhausted her appeals is simply vile.

There seems to be a genuine dispute about her condition – between those on her husband’s side, who say she has “no consciousness”, and those on her parents’ side, who say she is capable of basic child-like reactions. If the latter are correct, ending her life is an act of murder. If the former are correct, what difference does it make? If she feels nothing – if there’s no there there – she has no misery to be put out of. That being so, why not err in favor of the non-irreversible option?

The here’s-your-shroud-and-what’s-your-hurry crowd say, ah, yes, but you uptight conservatives are always boring on about the sanctity of marriage, and this is what her husband wants, and he’s legally the next of kin. Michael Schiavo is living in a common-law relationship with another woman, by whom he has fathered children. I make no judgment on that. Who of us can say how we would react in his circumstances? Maybe I’d pull my hat down over my face and slink off to the cathouse on the other side of town once a week. Maybe I’d embark on a discreet companionship with a lonely widow. But if I take on a new wife (in all but name) and make a new family I would think it not unreasonable to forfeit any right of life or death over my previous wife.

Michael Schiavo took a vow to be faithful in sickness and in health, forsaking all others till death do them part. He’s forsaken his wife and been unfaithful to her: she is, de facto, his ex-wife, yet, de jure, he appears to have the right to order her execution. This is preposterous. Suppose his current common-law partner were to fall victim to a disabling accident. Would he also be able to have her terminated? Can he exercise his spousal rights polygamously? The legal deference to Mr Schiavo’s position, to his rights overriding her parents’, is at odds with reality.

As for the worthlessness of Terri Schiavo’s existence, some years back I was discussing the death of a distinguished songwriter with one of his old colleagues. My then girlfriend, in her mid-twenties, was getting twitchy to head for dinner and said airily, “Oh, well, he had a good life. He was 87.” “That’s easy for you to say,” said his old pal. “I’m 86.” To say nobody would want to live in an iron lung or a wheelchair or a neck brace or with third-degree burns over 80% of your body is likewise easy for you to say.

We all have friends who are passionate about some activity – they say, “I live to ski”, or dance, or play the ‘cello. Then something happens and they can’t. The ones I’ve known fall into two broad camps: there are those who give up and consider what’s left of their lives a waste of time; and there are those who say they’ve learned to appreciate simple pleasures, like the morning sun through the spring blossom dappling their room each morning. Most of us roll our eyes and think, “What a loser, mooning on about the blossom. He used to be a Hollywood vice-president, for Pete’s sake.”

But that’s easy for us to say. We can’t know which camp we’d fall into until it happens to us. And it behooves us to maintain a certain modesty about presuming to speak for others – even those we know well. Example: “Driving down there, I remember distinctly thinking that Chris would rather not live than be in this condition.” That’s Barbara Johnson recalling the 1995 accident of her son Christopher Reeve. Her instinct was to pull the plug; his was to live.

As to arguments about “Congressional over-reaching” and “states’ rights”, which is more likely? That Congress will use this precedent to pass bills keeping you – yes, you, Joe Schmoe of 37 Elm Street – alive till your 118th birthday. Or that the various third parties who intrude between patient and doctor in the American system – next of kin, HMOs, insurers – will see the Schiavo case as an important benchmark in what’s already a drift toward a culture of convenience euthanasia. Here’s a thought: Where do you go to get a living-will kit saying that in the event of a hideous accident I don’t want to be put to death by a Florida judge or the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals? And, if you had such a living will, would any US court recognize it?

from The Chicago Sun-Times, March 27th 2005

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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