Saturday, March 26, 2005

Failing Terri Schiavo by Eric Cohen

This article, How Liberalism Failed Terri Schiavo, appears both at The Weekly Standard and The Ethics and Public Policy Center. (Tip of the hat to The Democracy Project, where I saw it linked.) It is written by Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis. They describe themselves : "The New Atlantis is an effort to clarify the nation’s moral and political understanding of all areas of technology—from stem cells to hydrogen cells to weapons of mass destruction. We hope to make sense of the larger questions surrounding technology and human nature, and the practical questions of governing and regulating science—especially where the moral stakes are high and the political divides are deep. " (More omitted for brevity).

Some excerpts from the article:

THE STORY OF TERRI SCHIAVO is both peculiar in its details and paradigmatic in its meaning. The legal twists, political turns, and central characters are so odd that one hesitates to draw any broader conclusions. But the Schiavo case is also a tragic example of the moral and legal confusions that govern how we care for those who cannot speak for themselves, especially those whose lives might seem less than fully human.

Mr. Rosen then gives some history of Michael Schiavo's change from loving caregiver through and onto his current steadfast insisting on Terri Schiavo's death, and his schism with the parents, the Schindlers.

More Cohen: And so a long legal drama ensued, making its way through the Florida court system, centered on two sets of questions: First, what would Terri Schiavo have wanted? (snip) Second, what was Terri Schiavo's precise medical condition? Did she have any hope of recovery or improvement? If her condition was unalterable--the persistence of sleeping and waking, the inscrutable moans, the uncontrolled movement of her bladder, the apparent absence of any self-awareness--was her life still meaningful?

And next Mr. Cohen says:

THE FIRST QUESTION--what would Terri Schiavo have wanted?--is the central question of modern liberalism when it comes to caring for those who cannot speak for themselves. It is the autonomy question, the self-determination question, the right to privacy question. At its best, the liberal autonomy regime protects the disabled from having other people's wishes wrongly imposed on them... In legal terms, this is called the "substituted judgment" standard: We must do what the incompetent patient would have wanted... This is procedural liberalism's ideal of autonomy in action: The caregiver simply executes the dependent person's prior orders, like a lawyer representing his client. (snip)

But events swirled murky and dark. Mr. Cohen again:

With scant evidence, a Florida district court concluded that Terri Schiavo would clearly choose death over life in a profoundly incapacitated state...There was no living will...the court relied entirely on Michael Schiavo's recollection of a few casual conversations...Part of the problem was simply judicial incompetence--especially the court's decision, in direct violation of Florida law, to act as Terri Schiavo's guardian at key moments of the case rather than appoint an independent guardian...But the problem went deeper than incompetence: It also had to do with ideology--(emphasis mine) with a set of assumptions about what makes life worth living and thus worth protecting. Procedural liberalism (discerning and respecting the prior wishes of the incompetent person; preserving life when such wishes are not clear) gave way to ideological liberalism (treating incompetence itself as reasonable grounds for assuming that life is not worth living). (snip)

The court's obligation to discern objectively what Terri's wishes were and whether they were clear--a question of fact--morphed into an inquiry as to whether she could ever get better, with the subjective assumption that life in her present condition was not meaningful life.

As Mr. Cohen next says, we have been asking the wrong questions. The soul of the issue:

FOR ALL THE ATTENTION we have paid to the Schiavo case, we have asked many of the wrong questions, living as we do on the playing field of modern liberalism. We have asked whether she is really in a persistent vegetative state, instead of reflecting on what we owe people in a persistent vegetative state. We have asked what she would have wanted as a competent person imagining herself in such a condition, instead of asking what we owe the person who is now with us, a person who can no longer speak for herself, a person entrusted to the care of her family and the protection of her society. (italics mine) (snip)

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...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.

The article concludes six paragraphs further on. I have tried not to overwhelm the reader with too many segments from this long but easy to follow and intensely thoughtful piece. Please, read it all. It is well worth the time.

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