The Thinker

Schiavo: It’s not the Right to Life, it’s the Right to Die

The Right to Lifers in the Schiavo case have it all wrong. It’s not about the right to life. It’s about the right to die.

As much as I love my wife, daughter, parents, siblings and friends they have no say in whether I live or die. They have no say because they are not me. I have autonomy. I decide what I do, what I eat and who my friends will be. I don’t need permission from anyone. Admittedly it would be pretty heartless of me to take my own life since it would likely leave my family devastated. But the bottom line is whether I live or die is my choice. It’s not something that needs to be enshrined in law. It just is a fact of life. Unless, like Terri Schiavo, I cannot speak for myself and am in a persistive vegetative state (PVS) I can choose the timing of my exit. If I have some incurable disease I can refuse treatment. If I am in a hospital or nursing home I can order that my feeding tubes be removed or my oxygen be cut off. And if I want to I can put stick a gun to my head and blow my brains out just like Hunter S. Thompson.

When we cannot speak for ourselves we have rules. A living will, recognized by most states, speaks for my wishes when I cannot. Terri Schiavo did not have one. This is not surprising. She was, after all, only 26 when lack of oxygen (allegedly a result of her mental illness: bulimia) caused her massive brain damage. She was however legally married to Michael Schiavo. It may be inconvenient to the Schindler family but when someone reaches eighteen they can legally make their own decisions. They decide if they want to get married. And if they decide to get married then their spouse, by default, has the legal right to speak for him or her. And Michael Schiavo asserts that Terri told him several times that she would not choose to linger in this world if she were in the state she was in.

And yet for an obscene fifteen years this soap opera has been played out, most of it in the courts. Twenty-three court rulings, all against the Schindler family, have said that Michael Schiavo has the right to act in behalf of Terri. But for some people the law and due process are insufficient. It’s gotten into the theater of the absurd. Woodside Hospital in Pinellas Park, Florida is virtually an armed camp. But Terri is just one of seventy patients there. Now we learn that the three to four minute security delay meant that Jennifer Johnson’s grandfather passed away before she could say a final goodbye to him.

No wonder our email in-boxes are filling up with references to how to create living wills. (I’ve had four emails so far myself.) The Schiavo case should encourage many of us to get off the dime and have our wishes signed, sealed and notarized. Still, while a living will ensures no ambiguity it shouldn’t be necessary. My wife knows how I feel about hanging on when there is no hope of recovery: I want to be let go. Actually, I would not prefer to die the way Terri Schiavo is dying. A week or two of starvation and dehydration is inhumane. Rather I’d like to have a nurse or physician give me a quick shot of something to put me out of my misery, just like vets do routinely to pets of all kinds. Unfortunately our so-called “culture of life” makes this impossible in our country. Even in places like Oregon where physician assisted suicide is legal, Uncle Sam is in court to ensure it doesn’t happen. So in Oregon like in the rest of the country you had best put your thoughts into a living will while you have your wits about you or resign yourself to a slow and potentially painful death. Fortunately, while I cannot know for sure, I suspect I won’t feel a thing. Any “me” in that body will have long departed this earth. I don’t know how to break it to the Schinders, but their Terri has been dead for fifteen years.

My wish for a quick end of my life in these circumstances is not just an expression of my deeply held feelings about my life, but also a kindness to those who love me. I want them to accept my death and move on. That’s the real issue with the Schindlers. The Terri they knew is gone and is never coming back. They need to let her go. They need to move on and to heal. Instead we have a great disturbance in the natural forces as artificial means keep her body alive. But her spirit is dead and long gone.

Of course a lot of the recent posturing has nothing to do with Terri and a lot to do with politics. The Republicans saw an opportunity to use the body of Terri Schiavo for their own purposes: to pump up their political base. What President Bush and the Congress did was horrifying and shameful. If you ask me it was the legislative equivalent of rape. Instead of showing respect for Terri they showed contempt. Rather than showing a love for life they demonstrated contempt for the law and for individual autonomy. No wonder the American public is overwhelmingly against what they did. No wonder Bush’s ratings are at new lows. The last thing any of us want to do is to leave our most private medical decisions to the government.

As for the Right to Life crowd, it’s now clear what is really going on. These people are not right to life. Rather, they are in denial of death. Death is a crossing we all must face someday but they deny it. In reality they have a phobia about death, and their anxiety about their own mortality is leeching out into the public sphere.

So the issue is really about law and individual autonomy. Terri Schiavo’s case will teach us we must be proactive to make sure our end of life wishes are respected. Her death will also teach us that we need to grapple with our own feelings on life and death. That is the only good I see coming out of her sad situation. Like Jesus, she was martyred for our sins. Unlike Jesus though I doubt she chose to become an example. Nonetheless she will teach us an important lesson. Let us hope that we absorb it.

Safe passage, Terri.


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