By Audrey Stallsmith
Columnist Gene Lyons apparently thinks Terri Schiavo was allowed to die with the same "mercy and dignity" as an irreparably injured animal being put out of its misery. But, if I deprived my Border Collie of food and water for two weeks, the local SPCA wouldn’t call its death either "merciful" or "dignified."
In fact, I asked, at one point, "If they’re determined that Terri die, can’t they at least give her a shot of something to make it quick?" And I hastily answered my own question with, "No, I guess that would seem too much like an execution."
As a home health aide, I do have some sympathy for Schiavo’s husband. I’m quite familiar with how much stress a loved one’s disability can impose on a family. So I’m not in favor of artificially prolonging the dying process for a person who is really on the way out.
But whether or not Terri should initially have been resuscitated is not the issue. She was nowhere near death at the time her feeding tube was removed, as is proved by the fact it took her almost two weeks to expire.
I have serious doubts about whether I would have lasted that long under the same circumstances! Of course, the doctors insist she wasn’t suffering during that time period, but how do they know?
As columnist Bernadine Healy, M.D., points out in U.S. News & World Report, "aware patients are diagnosed as unaware with ‘disturbing frequency,’" and medicine hasn’t yet advanced to the point where we can tell for sure what a person in Terri’s state is or isn’t feeling. And, considering the amount of backpedaling doctors have had to do on other issues in recent years, I wouldn’t want to stake my life on such educated guesses!
Many people seem to believe Terri’s soul had already left her body, and all that remained was to get rid of the container, so to speak. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Creation and Fall, "Man’s body is not his prison, his shell, his exterior, but man himself. Man does not ‘have’ a body; he does not ‘have’ a soul; rather he ‘is’ body and soul."
As many people who have died on the operating table and been revived can testify, the soul remains with its body as long as that body is alive--and returns to that body when it is resuscitated. Even in death, we apparently take some vestige of our physical form with us since, from all indications, people can recognize their loved ones in the afterlife.
So, whether the old Terri was evident or not, her parents were right. She was still there. "Severely damaged," as John Leo writes in U. S. News & World Report, "but not in pain or dying, not brain dead, and in no position to protest her own execution on grounds that other people consider it best for her."
"People in comas or persistent vegetative states," Joni Eareckson Tada reminds us in When Is It Right to Die?, "aren’t dying. . .they are severely disabled." As Leo points out, disability-rights activists like Tada, who is quadriplegic herself, were "an important constituency defending Schiavo’s right to live, but since journalists cannot afford to depict them as unbalanced or foolish, they have been rendered almost invisible."
What worries Christians is the fact we have seen this whole thing before--with the issue of abortion. As Charles Colson states in Against the Night, "When what was once a crime becomes a debate, that debate usually ushers the act into common practice." And we all know how that came out.
Suppose, today, a man were to rip open the belly of a woman who is nine months pregnant, tear out the infant, and stomp him/her to death. Abortion rights advocates would contend that, unless the woman dies herself, the attacker can’t be charged with murder--just because the baby had not yet been delivered. And, although it is the exceptional cases--such as rape and incest--that are used to defend abortion, we all know the vast majority of abortions performed don’t fall under that category.
So what do we have to look forward to in the "brave new world" of euthanasia? I shudder to think. As Leo writes, the field of bioethics is becoming increasingly secularized and has already begun "to stress the quality of life, meaning that many damaged humans, young and old, don’t qualify for personhood because their lives have lost value." At our local feed mill, I heard one man comment, only half jokingly, "We’d all better watch out now. None of us are getting any younger."
Is it any wonder Colson concludes we, as Christians, "are called to defend the cause of the weak, the helpless, the defenseless?" The idea that persons who can’t contribute to society may be eliminated is a tenant of communism and fascism.
In The Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado writes of Christ’s kingdom that it is, on the contrary, a place "where the rejected are received. . .a kingdom where people have value not because of what they do, but because of whose they are."
Of course, the notion that the unborn and the disabled don’t contribute is false in itself. Tada, for example, has given much more to society than most of us who are less handicapped. We can say we wouldn’t have the strength to cope as she does, but we’re not required to.
Grace is like manna. We can’t store it up ahead of time. But, if we only ask, we’ll be given as much as we require when we require it. My own parents found that out when their first two children were born with irreparable birth defects, as a result of which both eventually died. Although there was no hope for those unresponsive babies’ future, Mom and Dad cared for them diligently anyhow.
But, as Tada writes, "society is now assigning no positive value to suffering and becoming more oriented toward a culture of comfort. . ." These days we’re all for getting it over with, forgetting, and moving on ASAP. But, as Tada concludes, "we had better stop looking for escape hatches, for this is our hatchery."