Thursday, March 24, 2005

The "Mennonite" view on Terri Schiavo

Greetings, y'all. I'm the Mennonite guest blogger that Everett promised you a few weeks ago. I'm sorry it has taken so long to post, but my graduate work at UIC has eaten up most of my personal time. (Or at least that's my ready-made excuse whenever I miss out on my social obligations!)

Seamus Mitwurst asked for my opinion on the Terri Schiavo affair, and thus out of respect (and perhaps fear) for the gun lovin' libertarian, I'll weigh in with my two cents.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn opined that Terri Schiavo has generated a polarized political discourse where each side in the 'culture war' (i.e., liberal vs. conservative pundits) is more interested in discrediting their opponents rather than expressing any genuine concern for Schiavo, her husband, and her family members.

According to Zorn, in the highly charged atmosphere of political punditry, Terri Schiavo has become a mere symbol of a larger debate between the left and the right. To the progressive left, those who want to keep Schiavo alive are religious (read: Christian) ant-abortion zealots bent on imposing their totalitarian theocratic state on secular-minded (read: tolerant, intelligent, and open-minded) citizens of the republic. To the political right, those who want her feeding tube removed are part of a secularist agenda to stamp out religious values faster than the Jacobin attempt to de-Christianize France during the Revolution.

If I were Terri Shiavo's husband, I wouldn't want her to languish in a permanent vegetative state either. And if anything positive can come out of this situation, I hope it will be an increased awareness of the utility of advanced directives and living wills.

But, as this WebMD article points out, neatly packaged legal documents like living wills cannot by themselves mitigate the unpredictable nature of the dying process, and thus patients and their families will still be confronted with very difficult questions. (I should add in passing that those kinds of questions are metaphysical in nature, and 'science' is not equipped to address them. To understand this, one has to understand the difference between 'medicine' in a strict technical sense and 'healing' in a broader metaphysical sense. Science can alter bio-realities by keeping somebody alive even when their vital organs have failed them, but this doesn't remove the a priori moral decisions that doctors, family members, and the larger community must make.)

In sum, there are no easy answers. I would opt for letting her die in peace. But I realize that my judgment call is coming from a relatively safe distance away from the pain and agony of watching a loved one die.

Finally, if I were to demonize those who wish to keep her alive, am I acting any better than Tom Delay?