"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance

 and a people who mean to be their own governors

 must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Terri Schiavo – May We At Least Act With Mercy

The case of Terri Schiavo is a troubling and an upsetting one on many fronts. Much has been written on the legal aspects of this case and we will leave it to those with expertise in those areas to comment.

Our problem with this case doesn’t revolve around who has the right to make the ultimate decision for Terri – her husband, her parents, state courts or federal courts. This can and will be decided. Our problem comes with how this procedure is carried out, if her husband’s right to make this decision on Terri’s behalf prevails.

In this instance, the state has allowed Terri’s life to end naturally, by removing her feeding tube. This begs the questions, is removing the feeding tube without consequence beyond her death and is it natural? Does Terri feel pain?

Is it natural and humane to deprive someone of food and water whether it is by glass and plate or by feeding tube? Is the method for providing sustenance the key factor in answering the question and ultimately the one upon which the decision should rest?

Terri isn’t being kept alive by mechanical means, her heart beats and she breathes on her own. We believe the decision to remove Terri’s feeding tube is merely a hands off approach to killing her. It is a way for us to pretend that a life was not taken, but rather that a life was lost. We would not wish to live in Terri’s circumstances but, we would not wish to die as she might.

Deprived of food and water, will Terri feel no pain, will she not suffer? How can we ever be certain of the answer to these questions? Did Terri require anesthesia when she was operated on to insert and remove the feed tube? If the answer to that question is yes, that leads us to conclude her doctors believed she is capable of feeling and reacting to pain.

To absolve ourselves from the guilt of taking a life, we take refuge in the natural consequences of our inaction. It is not what we give Terri that will kill her; it is what she is unable to give herself that will. Somehow we’re off the hook when we remove her feeding tube, sinners if we provide medication that puts her to sleep and then to death.

So whose interests are we really deciding in this case? Some say Terri’s parents are selfish for fighting to keep her alive. They aren’t fighting for Terri, they're fighting for themselves. Other’s, including Terri’s husband, claim they are fighting to let her die as she would have wanted under these circumstances. In the latter case, perhaps the ends aren’t selfish, but the means to that end protect their interests and not Terri’s. Does anyone believe Terri would have chosen to die a slow and painful death?

Why the need to remove Terri’s feeding tube? Wouldn’t she die just as surely if nutrients were no longer administered to her through the tube? No, the tube was removed to ensure her death. So let’s stop pretending this is a natural and acceptable way to end a life. This is a selfish way to bring about death. More intervention was required to remove Terri’s feeding tube than to give her a shot that would have quickly ended her life.

If we are willing to take on life and death decisions, then let’s also be willing to take on the burden of ending a life in a manner that is as quick and as painless as possible. If we are not willing to take on this responsibility, than let’s stop dehydrating and starving a person to death, it is cruel and unnecessary. Withholding sustenance or injecting a lethal substance, death comes at our hand either way – it is a distinction without a difference. If it is for us to choose death, may we at least act with mercy?


At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Shamrock said...

This was exactly what I've been thinking all along. My grandmother had a feeding tube removed in November, after we were beyond hope that she'd recover. We were assured, however, that she would receive palliative care (morphine) and that she would suffer no pain. She lasted a mere two days. They haven't said, but I hope Terri's receiving the same mercy.


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