Friday, March 18, 2005

Boy, I Wouldn't Want to Live That Way

Over and over again, in polls, on message boards, in the judge's decisions, and in the media who keep referring to it as a “right to die” issue, I hear the same message – Terri Schiavo is suffering and should be allowed to die. “This is not living. This is existing,” says one comment on a message board. “She has been in this condition for years. It’s time for the suffering to end,” says yet another.

While the medical details are certainly different, Terri’s situation still reminds me of the late Christopher Reeve. Was he not trapped in his body just as surely as Terri is? Mr. Reeve could still communicate in a way we could understand. But he was completely dependent on others for life support, just as Terri is, in that he was unable to take care of his own basic needs, such as food and water. And I could easily look at him and think, “Boy, I wouldn’t want to live that way.”

Shortly after his accident, Mr. Reeve expressed his own desire to die rather than continue in a body that no longer responded to him. He could not imagine life in the condition he was in, which held little hope for recovery or even amelioration of symptoms, unlike Terri, whose condition might be improved with therapy, if only someone would try. But Mr. Reeve’s wife did not allow him to surrender to despair. She helped her husband realize that he was still valuable, and viable, and capable of living a full life as a husband and father in spite of his physical limitations. And realize this he did – he went back to work, he stayed actively involved with his family, and he even became a political activist. Disregard for the moment his seriously misguided efforts to fund embryonic stem cell research. That he fought for research for a cure shows us that he was a desperate man who had found even in his severely disabled body a strong desire to live.

We know what Mr. Reeve suffered because he had no brain injury that prevented him from telling us what he went through. We don’t know what Terri Schiavo suffers. We can only guess. She is not in a persistent vegetative state, but even if she were, there is testimony from others who have been diagnosed as such who were not at all unaware. They could hear, feel, think, see, all while trapped in a body that no longer responded to their wishes. But those around them couldn’t “see” what they were experiencing. We only know it now because they recovered, and they can tell us.

It’s very easy for most of us to say, “I wouldn’t want to live that way” when we look at either of these disabled people. It’s easy because we are not actually in their shoes. But if life with disabilities is so horrifyingly empty that we would choose death instead, why aren’t disabled people killing themselves in large numbers all over the world? We should be inundated with suicides, because medical care has advanced far enough to leave us with many people who live on in spite of great physical trauma. Dr. Kevorkian notwithstanding (and he is a convicted criminal), we aren’t. Why not? There must be something to living, after all, even when life is imperfect. Isn’t that exactly what Mr. Reeve learned and why he chose to live?

If Terri’s feeding tube is removed, she will begin to thirst and hunger. She already communicates with the people around her. There is no reason to believe she will not try to communicate her need for sustenance. Will anyone be listening? Will Judge Greer, who has not even seen her, yet claims to be her representative in the matter, make any attempt to listen if she now expresses her desire to live? Or is she bound for slow and painful execution by the state, having committed no crime, with no recourse and no right to come to the same conclusion as Mr. Reeve did, that even life in an imperfect physical condition is life worth living?

This case is less about Terri’s desire to live, which cannot be determined with the degree of certainty that should be required before she is irreversibly killed, and more about our desire to see her suffering end, not for her sake, but for our own, because we can’t stand to see her this way. We kill a lot of people (more than 4,000 every day in this nation) because we arrogantly decide that their lives are not worth living.

I don’t understand this love of death. Every one of us has suffered, is suffering, and will suffer in the future. We should be killing ourselves in droves if we hate suffering so much, but we aren’t. We love our lives even when they are filled with hardship. Still, we look at the suffering of others, and we think since we could not endure it, it must be untenable and death must be preferable. But when we are faced with our own suffering, somehow most of us do endure. We find strength, which those of faith believes comes from God, and we go on. That we don’t commit suicide more frequently demonstrates that we do love life, even a life filled with suffering – but apparently, only as long as that life is our own.

Matthew 25:41-46

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”


At 9:15 AM, Blogger Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I find that line of thinking where somebody says "I wouldn't want to live that way" and then expects us to see that as a reasonable arguement for killing somebody self absorbed in the extreme. It's not about them. It's not about what they want or think they want. It's about somebody else, and how she might or might not wish to die.
I don't believe Terri ever told Michael she did not want to 'live that way,' since he conveniently forgot to mention it for so many years. But even if she did, saying that "I don't want to live like that" is not hte same thing as saying "I wish to be denied food and water until I die a miserable, painful death."

Good post

At 5:57 AM, Blogger GrannyGrump said...

I wish the mainstream media would interview the disability-rights activists who are all siding with Terri, not with Michael. But they'd rather perpetuate the myth that only "the good life" is worth living.

What a sad, shallow society we have become.


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