TO BE...OR NOT TO BE...
22 March 2005
I've been trying to come to some sort of decision about how I feel about the Terry Schiavo case. And I really haven't made up my mind.
On the one hand there are the deeply religious, anti-choice, anti-assisted suicide folks who say that this is not a decision to be made by man, but by God. On the other side there are those who feel that if she didn't want to be kept alive in a vegetative state that her wishes should be respected.
In the middle are parents who love her and who are grasping at every glimmer of hope, and a husband who loves her and wants to let her go.
I feel uniquely qualified to speak to this particular issue. My sister was shot in the head at age 24 and spent 7 weeks in a coma. I was pregnant with David at the time and my mother didn't feel that it was good for me to see her, so I didn't go--a decision I have not regretted. But I can remember the daily reports about "I think she squeezed my hand today," or "She sort of opened her eyes today," despite the fact that it was clear she was never going to come out of that vegetative state, and the doctors talked about nervous responses to stimuli when the brain has no other function.
We were lucky. Karen died of a massive kidney infection and though at that time (1971) assisted suicide had not been discussed in the media, it was inevitable that we would at some point be faced with the decision of whether or not to turn off the machines that were keeping her alive.
Shortly after Karen's death, another Karen made headlines. Karen Quinlan. The fight over Karen Quinlan went on in the courts and in the media for years. Quinlan, age 21, collapsed after drinking too much alcohol combined with medications and though the doctors were able to save her life, she suffered permanent irreversible brain damage and lapsed into a "persistent vegetative state."
After three months of watching her condition deteriorate to the point where she was curled in a fetal position and losing weight, the parents decided to remove her from life support. The doctor felt that he could not, for moral reasons, follow their request, and so the debate over the issue of "right to die" was born. The case was argued in the courts, all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled that she could be taken off respirator. When disconnected from the respirator she began to breathe on her own and was given nutrients and antibiotics to fight off infections. She died at age 30.
This could have been my sister, and what would we have done?
As the parent of two children who died too young, I understand the anguish of the Schiavos as they struggle to find the person Terri used to be inside the shell that she has become. I understand the wanting to believe that she's still there and hoping that a miracle will bring her back.
I also understand the anguish her husband must be undergoing, trying to follow his wife's wishes (though without the benefit of a living will to give him the legal authority).
If it were me, standing at the bedside of Paul or of David--what would I do? In theory, my intellect tells me that I would turn off the machines and let them go, knowing that was what they would want. But I can only speak in the abstract. If I felt that David "maybe squeezed my hand" or "tried to open his eyes," even though I were being told these were nervous responses, not intellectual responses, would I still be able to order the hospital personnel to disconnect them?
I honestly don't know--which is what angers me about all the thousands of strangers who "know" the right thing to do for this woman. They can't possibly know. I was there three times and I don't know.
That this has become a case for all night sessions in Congress and special legislation signed by the President bothers me a lot. While we think nothing about collateral damage in Iraq and Afghanistan, the whole workings of the government comes to a hault while a room full of strangers debates what is the right thing to do for this woman whom none of them will ever see and whom they know only in the abstract.
I am with Terri's husband, who says that this should be a private matter left to the people involved. Even if the two sides are in opposition, it has already passed through several courts and it is not an appropriate case for federal government intervention. That is not the role of the federal government and neither the members of Congress nor the man in the White House can possibly have all the facts, know how court decisions have been made, or what the best decision for this woman may be. They can only act based on their individual religious beliefs, which is a pretty dangerous way to run a government.
Whatever is the fate for Terri Schiavo, what is clear is that there are going to be a lot more people making living wills in the wake of all this publicity--and that may be the only good thing to come out of an otherwise complete lose-lose situation.
In an interesting juxtaposition, a March 16 Houston Chronicle article reports that a 6 month old African American baby in Texas was removed from life support, on orders of a Houston court, despite his mother's request that he remain on life support.
Hmmm....can we say "double standard" children?
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Testing out something on my camera--Walt just happened to be a handy subject!