Crimes of compassion

Kathleen Parker
|
Posted: Mar 25, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - The oddest charge among the many that found space in print and on airwaves was that the Terri Schiavo case was "political."

As Tucker Carlson noted facetiously on Chris Matthews' NBC show, "No! You mean you found politics in the body politic?" Or words to that effect.

What isn't political these days? That Terri Schiavo's sad life and court-sanctioned death became a political hockey puck in Washington is neither surprising given the circumstances nor justification for some of the outrage and finger-pointing among the ever-more virtuous.

Just because something is political doesn't mean it's wrong. Put another way, just because Pat Robertson - or even Randall Terry - believes something is true doesn't mean it isn't.

And just because some people may benefit politically (or not) doesn't always mean that those who participate in the debate are not also moved by moral conviction - in this case, whether the courts are right to allow a woman to die who is not otherwise terminally ill or dying.

Did some politicians seize the Terri Schiavo moment to advance their own careers and gird their base? Of course. Have others ignored the moment in order to protect their political rears? Yes, again, and a pox on all their houses.

But those considerations do not alter the fact that many others acted out of conscience. And that is wrong? We could have worse problems than politicians who take seriously the court-ordered death of an otherwise-healthy disabled citizen.

Heaven knows we pull out all stops to protect the rights of convicted murderers on death row. Surely a disabled woman facing elimination of nourishment (a.k.a. starvation) deserves as much consideration.

People in less civilized parts of the world would love to have our problems.

It has been (almost) amusing to note these past couple of weeks how the so-called "pro-life" movement has been demonized as somehow sinister, up to no good. Those wild-eyed pro-lifers, always carrying on about the sanctity of life. So emotional. So . so . retro.

I'm not one to pitch a tent on the National Mall myself - or slap red tape across my mouth, though some around the homestead might applaud such event - but I don't mind that others do. In an ideological toss-up, I also might secretly hope that retros passionate about protecting innocent life have longer limbs than those whose passions tend toward pulling the plug.

Setting aside for now the myriad legal issues raised by the Schiavo case, there remains the moral issue with which we are right to tussle. The simple fact is that Terri Schiavo would not die except for removal of her feeding tube.

Her parents, Mary and Bob Schindler, did not want to let her die. Her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, was determined that she be - what? "Released from this life" sounds nice. "Allowed to die" sounds civilized.

If you're Catholic, as the Schindlers are, the court's order was a death warrant for their daughter, a deliberate act of murder. The Catholic faith doesn't consider nutrition and hydration extraordinary measure or heroic medical intervention irrespective of how it is delivered.

While true that court documents in the case refer to the feeding tube as "life support," many others consider it basic human care, including perhaps some in the Congress who voted to allow the Schindlers to seek a federal court review of their daughter's case.

You can call Congress' intervention in the Schiavo case political maneuvering if you please. Strong arguments can be made without much strain. But we might also see these events as trying to negotiate a deeply divisive and explicitly life-altering issue. Whatever one's verdict, we've all learned something true from the case. We're out of our league when we try to play God.

We might also conclude that what we've witnessed wasn't mere politics, but a clash of worldviews. That clash posed as a question that will haunt our debate for some time: Whose life is it anyway?

Is life strictly one's own to be embraced or disposed of as circumstances, convenience or pride dictate? And in the absence of autonomous life - whether that of a fetus or a disabled person - something to be disposed of by others?

Or is life a gift from the divine, as many faiths maintain? And how do we create laws to protect life if we cannot even agree on a definition of what life is?

I do not pretend to have the answers, but the debate seems worthy of our attention, even if politicians sometimes benefit.