Friday, March 25, 2005

A Core Question Of Principle

Do the strong and healthy have the right to decide whether the sick, infirm, pitiful, inconvenient, and unable-to-speak-for-themselves are worthy of living? If not, then can a person in a healthy state really legitimately create a "living will" calling for his own execution should he find himself in such a degraded state? On what grounds? Who is the healthy person to evaluate the desires of the sick person who is in a condition that the healthy person cannot even imagine? In our country, no one has the "right" to sell himself into slavery. Why would there be an effective right to "euthanize oneself as an undesirable life?"

I'm reminded of one of my favorite little Seinfeld stand-up jokes. He just says the line without needing to explain it. The line refers to the common situation in which you can barely get out of bed in the morning because foolish you stayed up way too late the night before (figuring it wouldn't be a big deal trying to get up the next day). The line is: "Night guy screws morning guy!"

If "night guy" can screw over "morning guy", then certainly, "well guy" can screw over "sick guy"!

There's a nice Weekly Standard article that gets into this. The whole article is worth reading.

For some, it is an article of faith that individuals should decide for themselves how to be cared for in such cases. And no doubt one response to the Schiavo case will be a renewed call for living wills and advance directives--as if the tragedy here were that Michael Schiavo did not have written proof of Terri's desires. But the real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.

A true adherence to procedural liberalism--respecting a person's clear wishes when they can be discovered, erring on the side of life when they cannot--would have led to a much better outcome in this case. It would have led the court to preserve Terri Schiavo's life and deny Michael Schiavo's request to let her die. But as we have learned, the descent from procedural liberalism's respect for a person's wishes to ideological liberalism's lack of respect for incapacitated persons is relatively swift. Treating autonomy as an absolute makes a person's dignity turn entirely on his or her capacity to act autonomously. It leads to the view that only those with the ability to express their will possess any dignity at all--everyone else is "life unworthy of life."

This is what ideological liberalism now seems to believe--whether in regard to early human embryos, or late-stage dementia patients, or fetuses with Down syndrome. And in the end, the Schiavo case is just one more act in modern liberalism's betrayal of the vulnerable people it once claimed to speak for. Instead of sympathizing with Terri Schiavo--a disabled woman, abandoned by her husband, seen by many as a burden on society--modern liberalism now sympathizes with Michael Schiavo, a healthy man seeking freedom from the burden of his disabled wife and self-fulfillment in the arms of another. And while one would think that divorce was the obvious solution, this was more than Michael Schiavo apparently could bear, since it would require a definitive act of betrayal instead of a supposed demonstration of loyalty to Terri's wishes.


[T]he autonomy regime, even at its best, is deeply inadequate. It is based on a failure to recognize that the human condition involves both giving and needing care, and not always being morally free to decide our own fate.

The article also has this insight:

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the immovable desire of Terri's parents to keep her alive and the willingness of Terri's husband to let her go. Parental love and spousal love take shape in fundamentally different ways. Parents first know their children as helpless beings, totally dependent on their care. Husbands first know their wives as attractive, autonomous beings who both give and receive love, and who enter into marriage as willing partners.

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