Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Hot Potato

With respect to the media circus surrounding the Terri Schiavo controversy, what's more bizarre -- that Ms. Schiavo's parents are claiming that she -- a woman with no functioning cerebral cortex -- is showing signs of wanting to live, or that they are enlisting the entire Christian Conservative right to pound the pulpit in hope of "saving" her?

Part of the wonder of this nation is our ability to freely speak our opinion, except for very few instances (eg shouting fire in a crowded theater). And another part of this nation's history is Alexander Hamilton's Federalist No. 10 (part of the Federalist Papers), which anticipated "factions" and subsequently created our government to be divided into branches and sub-branches to insure that no one whim, opinion or mood would or could overtake those of others. The concept borne from Federalist No. 10 is today loosely referred to as "checks and balances."

So the news that some asshole was arrested for soliciting the murder of Michael Schiavo (presuming his wife, Terri, indeed dies from lack of nutrition), as well as the murder of Judge George Greer of the 11th Circuit Court, who ordered Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube removed, is hardly surprising, given the profound power of faith the Christian Conservative Right feels they can (and responsibly should) exercise.

To wit, this is the same sensibility (if that term can be used without too much tongue in cheek) that drives anti-abortion extremists to kill doctors who perform abortion. The notion of killing someone to save lives isn't akin to this nation's death penalty; to them, it makes perfect sense.

However, taking the lives of doctors who perform abortions isn't the same as the death penalty. The death penalty is reserved for criminals who have committed acts and atrocities so distasteful and repugnant that they can no longer be accepted in and by society.

Aha, anti-abortionists contend...then doctors who take innocent lives (ie those of fetuses) should be treated in the same manner for taking said innocent lives. And they point to the bible, they speak of fire, brimstone, and retribution, and then they teeter off down the street, shouting at the tops of their voices, waving signs, flags and carrying leather-bound bibles.

The problem with their "logic" is that the state of life is a scientifically-derived condition. So at what point is life "life?" And how, and why, does this matter to the discussion of Terri Schiavo's status?

First of all, I am and always will be pro-choice. I think abortion is an unfortunate and distasteful procedure, but each woman and each situation will dictate whether abortion is appropriate, not someone who quotes scripture. I also am, for the most part, against purely cosmetic surgery and breast augmentation, but I rarely hear abortion activisits clamoring for an end to fewer wrinkles and bigger boobs.

My point is, I respect the rights of so-called extremists to oppose abortion and I support their right to voice that opinion, but once their opinions declare mine to be invalid or incorrect, I tend to speak up. Or, put another way, anyone who is against abortion has a right to their feelings; anyone who tells me that I am evil for allowing my girlfriend, hypothetically, to have an abortion, can go fuck themselves.

Simply put, of course...

So watching this entire Terri Schiavo situation unfold reeks of the same misbegotten, paternal, "we know what's best for you and yours more than you do" attitude that permeates the faith-based anti-abortion Christian Right. The only people who should have any say, as per our government's laws and design, are her husband, her family and the three branches of government, which includes the judicial, the executive, and the legislative. The judicial branch rules on laws created by the legislative branch; the executive branch implements laws and fills (by nomination) the judicial branch; and the legislative branch writes laws allowing the executive branch to enact and/or implement. Thus endeth the history lesson on government. The problem at the heart of Ms. Schiavo's saga is the overstepping of the boundaries set forth in the Constitution by the executive (in this case, the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, who earlier implored the Florida legislature to write a law demanding Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted) and the legislative (passing laws demanding Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted). Both of these actions were deemed unconstitutional by the judicial branch of the appelate court of the state of Florida.

Many of the Christian Right demanded either the governor, or his brother, intercede. They felt the judicial branch (not merely that of the state of Florida, but the US Supreme Court, which denied Ms. Schiavo's parents' request for an appeal) had erroneously erred in judgement by allowing Ms. Schiavo to be "murdered." They contend that she is healthy and should be allowed to live.

The problem is that Ms. Schiavo herself indicated to her husband, as well as others, that she would not want to be kept alive if she were completely incapacitated for an extended period of time without hope for recovery. Based on unbiased medical opinion, she is currently incapacitated, for an extended period of time, and has no hope for recovery. In fact, the doctors (hired by her husband, hired by Ms. Schiavo's parents, and those appointed by the court) agreed, in varying degree, that her cerebral cortex was either no longer existent (a result of catastrophic brain damage brought on by heart failure) or was so damaged that she could no longer function on her own. Medical science accepts as fact that the cerebral cortex is, essentially, what makes a person -- it holds our personality; our ability for basic, cognitive reason; and governs our ability to think. Because Ms. Schiavo's cerebral cortex, as confirmed by experts, is no longer able to function, and because brain tissue does not regenerate, she is, by all accounts, no longer able to live or function as a thinking human being. Her body is still "alive," ie that much of her organs are functioning, alive and able to receive oxygenated blood and perform as designed; but she cannot think, cannot speak, and cannot function as a human being.

Her parents have challenged any judicial rulings which accept the above as fact, citing doctors who they have hired, as well as claiming Ms. Schiavo responds to stimuli (such as her father waving a balloon, or her mother rubbing her shoulders), and they contend with a different course of therapy, Ms. Schiavo could improve. However, a variety of judges, in 24 separate rulings, have denied her parents' claims. Their claim that she responds to stimuli (as a thinking human being) are based on an edited video they submitted to the 11th Circuit Appelate Court. That video shows Ms. Schiavo reacting to her father waving a balloon; but the unedited video shows that she couldn't acknowledge or "follow" this activity; in other words, as several doctors suggested, any and all reaction on her part is strictly physiological activity, uncontrolled and unnoticed by her brain. Accordingly, in its opinion, "the court finds that based on the credible evidence, cognitive function would manifest itself in a constant response to stimuli."

She is there physically, but not mentally. And a person is more than a mass of living tissue.

As for the humanity angle, ie the starvation of a person, there is one simple question that must be asked and answered. Will she -- or can she -- feel pain if she is deprived of sustenance?

According to the experts, her organs will die, but she cannot process and cannot feel pain. Would administering a drug that would induce a more abbreviated ending of her life be more humane? Absolutely. Will she be able to realize she is dying? Absolutely not.


I respect the sanctity of human life. I have never killed anyone, and I don't plan on doing so anytime soon (then again, the day is young). But ending a life like Ms. Schiavo's -- defined by no brain activity, no cognitive ability to reason, and no sense of existence -- is more humane than extending it. And I am disappointed that so many vocal "pro-life" members of the Christian Right would countermand a branch of government and the Constitution of the United States simply because they don't understand (or refuse to do so) the scientific facts of Ms. Schiavo's vapid, empty existence.

But what irritates me -- repulses, actually -- is the notion that these people are so committed to saving a life -- despite the lack of "life" in Ms. Schiavo's situation -- that they would willingly disregard her wishes to no longer be forced to endure her condition. Ignorance of the law -- whether the speed limit, the appelate process or a person's right to determine their own destiny -- doesn't entitle others from making decisions for all.

As per usual, there is, and will not be, no end to this debate -- there will be endless discussion on abortion, the death penalty, and a person's right to live or die. However, as of this writing, Ms. Schiavo's parents have attempted all the appeals to which they are legally entitled, so, assuming yet another extremist fails to come forward and issue a proclamation or perform an extreme act (which is not a safe assumption), Ms. Schiavo's saga will soon end. At that time, we should expect a flurry of lawsuits, threats and more behavior mirroring that which has dominated this controversy from its start.

The one thing we should not do is to mourn Ms. Schiavo. She has been gone for 14 years; it's only now that she can finally, hopefully, achieve peace, along with her husband and everyone else who can take comfort in the notion that she will have finally have her will expressed.

And for those who will claim she was murdered, they will have to live with the fact that, short of rewriting or disposing of the Constitution, their faith-based belief system, which opposes medical science, common sense and the codes of law of this nation, will be, and will remain, irrevelant.

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