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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Schiavo Case: Law, Fact, Dogma

It is clearer every day that the politico-legal furor over the sad case of Terri Schiavo has already drifted over the line from a question of law and fact, to one of religiously determined definitions of life and death, and of homicide and suicide.

Initially, the case being made by congressional Republicans, the White House, and many supporters of the Schindler family was that the Schindlers simply needed a new judicial review of the case in a sympathetic court--i.e., a court not bound by seven years of Florida rulings. And the subsidiary arguments had to do with matters of fact: Was Michael Schiavo correct in saying his wife had made clear her opposition to living on in anything like her current condition? And did the medical officials in Florida who repeatedly diagnosed Terri Schiavo as being in a "persistant vegetative state" somehow get it fundamentally wrong?

But as the legal case for the Schindlers fades with each adverse judicial ruling, and absent any real evidence of medical error (unless you believe the diagnosis made by Bill Frist, M.D. from a videotape of Terri Schiavo has any real standing), what remains is essentially a religious case. And that case has merged with the extra-constitutional claims of the more militant elements of the Right to Life movement, which have become conspicuously involved with the Schindlers.

In the hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Whittemore that was forced by Congress, the Schindlers' attorney relied heavily on the argument that Terri Schindler could not have conscienctiously given consent to the withdrawal of her feeding tube because it was contrary to Catholic teaching; indeed, it would have put her immmortal soul in peril of damnation, he suggested! In other words, since the act itself is abhorrent, she couldn't consent to "suicide" any more than she could give her husband the right to "murder" her.

This line of reasoning, of course, was fully anticipated by the prime enabler of the current crisis, Tom DeLay, who has consistently referred to the course of action dictated by Florida law and pursued in many thousands of cases around the country as "murder," "barbarism," and "medical terrorism."

So for the Schindlers' backers, including Tom DeLay, the object here is not about law or fact, or for that matter, about Terri Schiavo--it's about finding some way to fundamentally change the laws of Florida and the United States to accord with a particular religious view of the ethics of the end of life.

Best I can tell, the Catholic teaching that withdrawal of nutrition from a brain-dead person represents "euthanasia" is relatively new, laid out in 1995 in the papal encyclical "Evangelium Vitae."

As explained by Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, the encyclical draws a very sharp distinction between "an action or omission which of itself and by intention causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering," which is murder, and the "decision to forgo so-called 'aggressive medical treatment,' in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family." The latter decision is morally fine, even upright. "That distinction is subtle but extremely important from a moral perspective," said Fr. Williams.

I think we would all agree the distinction is subtle, much like the Vatican's long-standing distinction between "natural" and "artificial" contraception, or its distinction between "contraception" and "abortion" with respect to birth control methods that interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall. American Catholics have largely ignored these "subtle" but "extremely important" distinctions in the area of reproductive ethics, and if the public opinion surveys about the Schiavo case are any indication, they will probably ignore this one as well. Which is why, in the end, the Schindlers and their crusade is ultimately becoming just another battle in the right-to-life movement's long war to force a redefinition of life and the legal protections afforded it from the moment of conception to biological death.

We all need to understand this this is what the case is really about, and (a) ignore the legal and factual arguments being thrown out as tactical maneuvers by the anti-abortion activists and Republican politicians pursuing this issue, because they don't mean them for a moment, and (b) recognize that for most of the protestors marching in support of the Schindlers, the photos of poor Terri Schiavo (may she someday rest in peace) they wave are just this week's version of the fetus posters they brandish every day of the year.

ADDENDUM: Before anyone emails me to accuse me of anti-Catholicism or something, I want it on record that I am about as philo-Catholic as any Protestant you will ever meet. And I completely respect (but do not share) the views of right-to-lifers, especially those, including most recently the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who make a point of opposing capital punishment on the same grounds, and express greater concern than today's Republicans for the health and prosperity of the sick and the poor. My plea in this post is simply for honesty, especially among those politicians who want to exploit the Schiavo case without embracing the logic of where it is inevitably leading.
-- Posted at 8:35 PM | Link to this post | Email this post


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