The immediate crisis has apparently passed. But all through Easter Sunday, one had to be alert to the possibility that, at any moment, the late and long-dead Terri Schiavo would receive the stigmata on both palms and both feet and be wafted across the Florida strait, borne up by wonder-working dolphins, to be united in eternal bliss with the man-child Elián González.
I had sincerely intended to be the only scribbler in America who stayed out of this most stupid and degrading argument. I ought to have left that phone call from Hardball unreturned. Not a single toe should have been dipped into the water. But, once you engage for even an instant, you are drawn into a vortex of irrationality and nastiness that generates its own energy. A family lawyer appears before an American court and solemnly proposes that his client’s “client” might have to spend extra time in Purgatory, or even in Hell, if the feeding-tube decision is adjudicated the wrong way. One Catholic fanatic, Patrick Buchanan, argues that federal marshals ought to burst in and preserve a corpse. Another Catholic fundamentalist, William Donahue, says that this would be unwise, but only because it might set a precedent for the rescue of living people on Death Row. Presiding from a distance is a nodding, senile pope whose church may possibly want to change the subject from its indulgence of the rape and torture of real-life children.
Wearying of this, I return to my e-mail and discover a letter from someone who signs himself as “Dr.” but who turns out to have a degree in something other than medicine. If I am correct in describing Terri Schiavo as dead, says this indignant correspondent, then how can I object to her receiving nourishment through a tube? It surely cannot do her any harm. I admit that I am caught out by this fallacy in my own position, and I briefly ponder the image of rows and rows of deceased Americans, all connected to life-support until the crack of doom. Dead? Yes, absolutely. But first do no harm. The mind reels.
My own bias is very strongly for the “choose life” position. I used to have horrible and exhausting arguments with supposedly “pro-choice” militants who only reluctantly conceded that the fetus was alive but who then demanded to know if this truly was a human life. I know casuistry when I see it, and I would respond by asking what other kind of life it could conceivably be. Down the years, there has been an unacknowledged evolution of the argument. Serious Catholics no longer insist that contraception is genocide, and “pro-choice” advocates have become quite squeamish about late-term abortions. Sensitive about consistency in the “life ethic,” the church has also moved to condemn if not to anathematize the death penalty. Things were improving slowly. Until now.
There is also a secular analogue of this debate. In the late 18th century, Jefferson and Madison had a serious argument about whether the earth belonged only to the living. Thomas Paine, proposing that “man has no property in man,” had condemned some traditional attitudes for, in effect, enfranchising the dead. Jefferson was inclined to agree, writing that past generations could be allowed no veto. Madison riposted that the deceased did have some rights and should be accorded some respect, since they had labored to create many of the benefits that the living actually enjoyed. But for this argument to be conducted reasonably, there had to be an agreement that the dead had actually died. Nothing can be done if the case is held in a permanent state of suspended animation.
If there was the least reason to believe that the late Terri Schiavo was not the ex-wife of her husband, I should say that he owed her a duty. But as it is—and here is my reply to the man who demanded that we ignore all responsible medical evidence yet still treat her as if she were alive—I think it is obscene that she is held in absentia to exert power from beyond the grave. As for the idea that this assumed power can be arrogantly ventriloquized by clerical demagogues and self-appointed witch doctors, one quivers at the sheer indecency of the thing. The end of the brain, or the replacement of the brain by a liquefied and shrunken void, is (to return to my earlier point) if not the absolute end of “life,” the unarguable conclusion of human life. It disqualifies the victim from any further say in human affairs. Tragic, perhaps, unless you believe in a better life to come (as, oddly enough, the parents of this now non-human entity claim that they do).
Meanwhile, the rest of us also have lives to live. And I hope and believe that we shall say, as politely and compassionately as we can, that we do not intend to pass our remaining days listening to any hysteria from the morbid and the superstitious. It is an abuse of our courts and our Constitution to have judges and congressmen and governors bullied by those who believe in resurrection but not in physical death. Which post-terminal patient could not now be employed, regardless of his or her expressed wish, to convene a midnight court or assemble a hasty nocturnal presidency? Not content with telling us that we once used to share the earth with dinosaurs and that we should grimly instruct our children in this falsehood, religious fanatics now present their cult of death as if it were a joyous celebration of the only life we have. They have gone too far, and they should be made to regret it most bitterly.