23 March 2005

All Schiavo, All the Time, All Wrong

Radio and television in the US are saturated this Wednesday of Holy Week with the plight of Terry Schiavo, the 41-year old Florida woman who has been in a "Persistent Vegetative State" for the last 15 years. Or rather, the fight over the plight of Terry Schiavo. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Everyone is wrong.

We cannot know definitively what Ms. Schiavo's wishes were, because she left no written directive about what to do if she were to end up in such a state. Few 26-year-olds do. Her husband, who has moved on to a new relationship, claims she would never have wanted to be kept alive in these circumstances, and that he is only trying to comply with her last wishes by having her feeding tube removed and allowing her to die. Her parents claim that she is minimally responsive, and that they want to keep her alive, and to take care of her. Congress has passed a special law (which the President got out of bed to sign) to authorize yet another court hearing to decide the case. And the pundits all seem to have their opinions.

The only opinion we cannot get access to is Ms. Schiavo's. Exactly what state is she in? Wakefulness is controlled by the brain stem, while conscious awareness (possibly distinct from consciousness) resides in the cerebral cortex, the "outer shell" of the brain. Does she experience wakefulness without conscious awareness? Or does she experience both wakefulness and conscious awareness, but without functioning efferent nerves (ingoing connections, carrying sensory inputs like sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) or afferent nerves (outgoing connections carrying motor impulses that result in voluntary muscle movement)?

If she has no conscious awareness, then presumably she is not suffering. If she is conscious but unplugged (missing either sensory or motor connections or both) then she may be in a living hell, best described by the title of a Harlan Ellison short story, "I have no mouth and I must scream." In the face of the possibility of such profound and inexpressible suffering beyond human capability to imagine, I dare not mouth standard Christian theology on the "redemptive value of suffering" in this case! Therefore, a presumption to prevent or cut short suffering would indicate that she be allowed to die, with medication to mitigate any discomfort associated with hunger and dehydration. On the other hand, if she is not suffering, a presumption in favor of life, that life is an intrinsic and not a contingent good, would indicate that Mr. Shiavo should turn guardianship of his wife over to her parents, who want to care for her. That would at least mitigate their suffering.

We cannot know the interior world of Ms. Schaivo. Thus all parties are in a state of profound ignorance on the essential question necessary to decide this case. The pundits are irrelevant, and Congress and the courts have inserted themselves where they have no moral standing, because they have no competence. They are all wrong.

Frankly, I don't know what to do about poor Ms. Schiavo. Since no decision is still a decision in this case, I'm wrong too.

How about that? A situation in which it is impossible to know the right thing to do. It happens more often than we want to admit. That's why Forgiveness is so necessary, so powerful, and so Redeeming.

1 comment:

melodion said...

Nicely put, John.

Despite being weary of much of the controversy, I do have to say I am glad that there is a debate taking place. Sure, there is often more heat than light. But I have heard many incredibly thoughtful things, even in the "MSM" (mainstream media) while this has been going on.

It suggests to me that there is still an openness to real vibrant thought in the public square of my nation, for which I am grateful.