October 21, 2003

A Matter of “Life” and Death.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jim @ 9:06 pm

I am not terribly proud to say that, until today, I have avoided learning too much about the Terri Schiavo case. It just seemed too depressing to deal with, and I admit that in cases where someone is in a “persistent vegetative state,” I side with those who question the wisdom of keeping such a person alive, for no other reason than the person’s heart is still beating.

I view death, under such circumstances, as the ultimate issue of privacy. I recall the case, many years ago, of the woman who was trapped in her lifeless body with Lou Gehrig’s disease, making it plain that she no longer wanted to live. I believed that in her case her wish to die should have been honored (as I believe it finally was).

However, this case is quite different, in that there appears to be nothing resembling clear and convincing evidence of this poor woman’s wishes. There is even some reasonable basis to question her husband’s motives in wanting to let her starve to death (or end her misery, depending on whom you believe).

I visited Zombyboy’s site, as I regularly do, and he analyzed the issue in his usual thoughtful way. Most importantly, he directed his readers to view the videos of Ms. Schiavo (there are links to the videos on his site) before drawing any final conclusions. I echo his thoughts.

I viewed the videos, which continue to haunt me. Ms. Schiavo can be seen responding to her doctor’s request to “open [her] eyes wide.” In the video, she clearly hears the doctor’s voice and, over the next minute, struggles to comply with his request. Finally, after sustained effort, she opened her eyes wide.

In another video, Ms. Schiavo listens to honky tonk piano music being played for her and responds by laughing, and in yet another, she sees her mother and smiles.

That did it for me. Ms. Schiavo is clearly not in a vegetative state. She responds to stimuli in a matter that cannot be called reflexive. On some level, she is aware of her surroundings.

It may well be that Ms. Schiavo is trapped in a useless body, and is unable to communicate her wish to die. However, it may well be that she is trapped in a useless body and is unable to communicate her wish to live. It is difficult to imagine a more horrifying scenario.

Absent clear and convincing, pre-existing evidence of what she would want done under such circumstances, (and apparently there is no such evidence), one is left with a horrible dilemma. Given the awful options, and after viewing the video, and being mindful that the consequences of an error in judgment either way may be tragic, I would have to opt for not taking measures that would ensure Ms. Schiavo’s death.

It is the absence of prior evidence of Ms Schiavo’s wishes and her inability to presently communicate her wishes, despite her awareness of her surroundings (at least at some level), that distinguishes this from a “right to die” case.

If Ms. Schiavo could somehow clearly signal her desire to live or not to live (by eye movements or otherwise), I would fully support honoring her wishes. However, as long as there is doubt about what those wishes are, I cannot support taking measures that would surely end her life.

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