Christopher Reeve, Terri Schiavo and Haleigh Poutre are all very different -- different circumstances, different ages, different classes. But they should all make us think about the same question: Shouldn't we always err on the side of life?
It's a fact that former "Superman" Reeve and his family (including his wife, Dana, who recently died of lung cancer) made an impact on American culture after his 1995 riding accident. Whether you agreed with their politics (as I did) -- they campaigned on behalf of Democrats and, most notably, for embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning -- you were likely impressed with their example of a couple living gracefully with pain and heartache, raising a family and making the best of the cards they were dealt. But his was a life that even his own mother had given up on almost ten years earlier -- she begged doctors to pull the plug on him after his fall.
The Reeves are a useful, ultimately tragic, story to keep in mind as we continue to debate so-called end-of-life issues. These are the life-and-death realities doctors deal with everyday; they are what many of us face quietly and painfully in our families; and they are what all of us talked about -- often with great passion -- a little over a year ago.
It was Lent going into the Easter season for many Christians as the case of Terri Schindler Schiavo reached its contentious, feeding-frenzied end days. Terri was the brain-damaged woman in Florida, stuck in a hospice bed, who couldn't speak for herself and ultimately had hordes ready to. Schiavo's parents and husband, Michael, duked out the issue in courts. He wanted it over with and her parents wanted their daughter cared for until she no longer had the fight in her. Michael Schiavo "won" -- for lack of a better verb -- and Terri was killed, dying of dehydration as the country watched from the hospice parking lot, where the media had camped out.
And even though she was killed she had, "A Life That Matters" (Warner Books, 2006) as her parents and siblings put it in the title of their new book, written in her memory. As her brother puts it: "They talked about Terri having no value in our society, that she should be dead because she has no worth. But look what she's done. She's touched millions of people around the world." The family now runs a foundation focusing on the disabled, giving them a voice they often don't have, hoping to eventually open care centers that would be "safe havens" for people who need people in ways similar to Terri.
A year out from Terri's death, we've seen the very different -- and yet hauntingly similar in its fatal flaw -- case of Haleigh Poutre in Massachusetts.
Haleigh is 12, victimized by her family, and wronged by the state agency that was supposed to be her safety net. In September she was brought into a hospital, brutally beaten by her stepfather. Hospital officials would determine that she had no hope and by January were in court battling for the right to end the fight for her. The court gave permission (the added tragedy: the party in court that wanted her alive was her abuser, who faced homicide charges if she wound up dead) but Haleigh wasn't ready to go. Before the hospital could do the court-sanctioned deed, she was making a comeback. She's in rehab today.
It's no wonder Haleigh was almost cut off though. Even the words we casually use give away our culture-of-death tendencies. As Bobby Schindler puts it, "The term 'vegetative state' makes me furious. People don't describe them as disabled anymore, but as vegetables." No carrot ever had the superpowers to get us arguing, caring, angry, entertained, or inspired. Reeve, Schiavo, Poutres all have -- and all after folks were ready to give up on them (and in Terri's case, did). It's springtime. Let's question the instinct that would keep our most vulnerable from a new season of life.