Friday, March 25, 2005

Terri Shiavo and Human Dignity

The Terri Shiavo case has been dominating the news for the past several days. I have been frustrated by those who have suggested that her life should be dependent on the potentiality of recovery. The fact is Terri will not recover, barring some miracle. (For the record, I do believe in miracles.) She may improve slightly with increased therapy and better care, but she will remain severely incapacitated. Doctors suggest that less than 20% of her brain is functioning. Still, her situation is not terminal. She is not brain dead, and she responds to outside stimuli. Accepting that there is no potentiality of recovery, does she deserve to die?

One of the better articles that I have read has been by Eric Cohen, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In How Liberalism Failed Terri Shiavo, Cohen offers a fair reporting of the facts of the case, and then explores the ethical issues involved. He suggests that we have framed the ethical dilemma inappropriately. Instead of focusing on Terri’s wishes, as interpreted by her husband and family, we should ask what obligation does humanity have for those severely handicapped.

But the real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.
I find it fascinating that Christianity grew so rapidly in its beginning partly because Christians valued life. They would not kill babies by exposure. They would care for orphans, the sick, and the elderly. When a plague would hit a town, the Christians would stay behind and care for the dying. New converts were attracted by their compassion.

Our faith teaches us that people are not statistics, puppets, or nuisances. Each person has dignity. With that in mind, I was amazed to read about one of the protestors for Terri Shiavo in Florida. Eleanor Smith is an activist, a self-professed lesbian and liberal, confined to a wheelchair because of polio. A few days ago she stated, "At this point I would rather have a right-wing Christian decide my fate than an ACLU member."

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