Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Life, Death, and Politics

The case of Terri Schiavo has been the source of massive media coverage over the last few days. For those of you not familiar with the controversy, Schiavo is a severely brain-damaged woman from Florida who has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990. Her brain damage was reportedly the result of a bulimia-influenced potassium imbalance that caused a heart attack, which stopped her breathing for several minutes before she could be revived. She can breathe independently, but she cannot feed herself and relies on a feeding tube to survive. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, claims that she had told him that she would never want to be kept alive with life support tubes; however, her parents believe that she can still make a recovery and function normally again. Her feeding tube has been removed twice in the past and had to be ordered replaced via legal action. It was removed a third time on Friday, leading the Senate to pass a bill gauranteeing Terri Schiavo due process of law as per the 14th Amendment. A Florida judge subsequently refused to order the tube reinserted, and as Schiavo enters her fifth day without food or water, the decision is being appealed by her parents. Doctors say that patients can survive for one to two weeks after the feeding tube is removed, but judging from what I've been reading from the AP, that's a nice way of saying "7-10 days".

The case for letting Terri Schiavo die is an intriguing one. Michael Schiavo said she told her best friend, "No tubes for me," while watching a show of some sort involving a person on life support. He says he's just trying to carry out her wishes. Doctors have also claimed that Terri Schiavo has no hope of recovery from her persistent vegetative state because her brain is so badly damaged. Michael Schiavo's brother recently said that anyone who thinks she is capable of communicating at this point "needs a mental health examination," possibly alluding to what he thinks of her parents. In short, assisted suicide and right-to-die advocates believe that letting Schiavo die would be a merciful act, and Michael Schiavo seems to think she would want it that way.

On the other hand, the case for replacing Schiavo's tube is equally provocative, if not more so. Michael Schiavo apparently filed for divorce at some point (I believe it was after her near-death, but I may be wrong). Although those papers have not been signed, he has a potential motive for wanting her dead: he has children with another woman that he cannot wed with Terri Schiavo still in the picture. Also, Terri Schiavo has no living will (she was 25 when she had her heart attack) and has never written anything saying that she would not want life support. Her parents also claim that she is a devout Roman Catholic who would consider life support removal a sin. The Vatican has released a statement likening the removal of her feeding tube to capital punishment of an innocent, and right-to-life advocates are protesting her starvation vociferously.

So what do I think about this? To me, it's really excruciatingly simple: unless you can prove to me that she would want it this way (through writing, recording, or something similar), err on the side of life and reinsert the tube until the whole thing can be settled. I'm not necessarily against life support removal, but why would you do it if you can't know the patient's wishes? Critics have been saying that the federal government has overstepped its bounds by guaranteeing due process; however, the Supreme Court ruled in a similar case to keep the patient alive back in 1990 (Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health) because incompetent persons were unable to exercise the right to refuse medical treatment. Are Schiavo's rights being violated because she cannot speak for herself? I don't know enough about the law to say that, but you should ask yourself whether you believe the right to die is greater than the right to live.

I don't necessarily think this should be such a political issue, but it has become one. Mark my words: if Schiavo dies before a verdict is reached, Christians from both parties will likely blame the Democrats for it and mobilize against the party over the 2006 and 2008 elections. Contrary to popular belief, not all evangelical Protestants were pro-Bush last election; this may push them over the edge. Catholics (who were slightly pro-Republican for the first time in decades) will go decisively right. There are no guarantees, but if Terri Schiavo becomes a political martyr, it could ruin the Dems. I'm NOT cheering for this to happen, but it would be a big mistake for the left to push the issue more. To do so would be political suicide.


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