Friday, April 15, 2005

Culture of Life Meets Death on Different Terms

One subtheme during the quieter moments of the Schiavo saga was that, every day, families across the country were facing similarly hard choices. Several figures in the drama — Robert Schindler, Tom DeLay and the ubiquitous Franciscan Brothers — had previously decided to let terminal loved ones go. No doubt before the year is out, someone among those who kept the vigil outside the hospice will themselves hear said of a family member, "I'm sorry, but there's nothing more to be done."

For all those who persisted in believing they were fighting a spiritual battle against a Culture of Death, the outcome of the Schiavo case must represent a terrible letdown. They must be hankering for another go at the forces of evil and activism.

So suppose the entire cast were transported to another bedside, with different set of circumstances?

Suppose a young teen is diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer. She has one tumor removed, then with the help of anticoagulant drugs, she dodges a clot thrown to her heart from the site of her IV line. Next, she endures two rounds of chemotherapy, which deplete her body's ability to produce red blood cells. A second surgery causes some blood loss. Her doctor warns she could die unless she has a transfusion.

The girl refuses. Blood transfusions are against her religious beliefs. She is 14 years old. She has not even lived as long as Terri Schiavo persisted in her bed, and now she is willing to stop living.

"It's no different than somebody getting sexually assaulted or raped or robbed or something," says the girl. "You'd feel violated because it's not anybody else's property, it's you."

This from a girl who has ingested drugs, had chemo, gotten through two surgeries and accepted the possibility of having her leg amputated. Lifesaving blood is different because the Bible says so. I might differ on that point, but not with her position that having something inserted in your body against your will is like rape.

Her parents, Jehovah's Witnesses, are not fighting to preserve her every breath. They don't ask for a tube to be inserted. They raised her to think this way. So they will watch their otherwise lucid daughter perish over what some would consider an ancient rule of hygiene mistakenly elevated to a religious principle.

Then the courts get involved because the oncologist believes the child is being endangered. A judge rules that a transfusion may be permitted. "Ultimately, her religious beliefs don't override her right to life and health," the judge says.

As you may have guessed, this isn't a hypothetical case. It has unfolded in British Columbia since December, and a judge made her ruling just this week.

Ironically, if the girl were 16 or lived in a different province, the Canadian courts might have rendered a different decision.

You can imagine why there were no red-taped mouths outside the courtroom. What would be the demand — Death? Would Dr. Frist have dared a diagnosis and pronounced there was nothing medicine could do for her? Would Rep. DeLay go after activist doctors and activist judges for denying religious rights — or for denying one's right to a preventable death? And how about those who said Terri Schiavo's less-than-clearly-articulated wishes should be respected? There is nothing at all ambiguous about the wishes of this girl. Are we going to respect them?

Millions of words and trillions of brain cells were expended on the Schiavo case, and what did we learn, besides to get it in writing and do it now? And that both sides believed they were on the side of compassion and morally rectitude.

This case seems to have potential for stirring up those sides a bit.

Ten years from now, had Terri been kept alive, her situation would not have changed. But for many former Witnesses, ten years gave them enough time to escape indoctrination and abuse to live full lives. If this girl were to survive, would she ultimately be grateful?

At what age is it appropriate to let a child choose death? When parents allow their children to die, when is it child abuse, and what is the state's obligation to intervene before the abuse occurs?

Would those who held the Florida courts were wrong not to intervene support the decision of the B.C. courts to step in? Is the issue in both cases saving a life? Or would they say this time the courts are infringing on religious practice?

Religion is closely bound up with thinking about what constitutes a good death. Should medical professionals acquiesce to religious beliefs in cases where they consider death to be preventable?

Should individual states have different right-to-die laws, as they have different positions on the death penalty? Or should enforcement be nationwide? How would former Attorney General Ashcroft — who attempted to circumvent Oregon's assisted suicide law — approach this case?

Since there are no votes to be picked up in Canada, and since this story lacks the Shakespearean struggle between Schiavo's husband and parents, we won't have a national discussion like this. Which is too bad. It would've been interesting to see if the two ranks shouting at each other got a little scrambled this time.


Anonymous Meg said...

You're making lots of sense here, but I have one quibble:

Terri Schiavo's was not an end-of-life case. It was a caring-for-people-with-disabilities case.

A lot of disabled people are understandably wigged out by the public's tendency to overlook that.

Meg, who nevertheless thinks Terri Schiavo was used by a bunch of people who are more about a culture of power than about a culture of life.

7:02 PM  

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