A right to live, a right to die

Suzanne Fields

10/27/2003 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

The secular lives that most of us lead, no matter what our faith (or lack of it), can often keep us from seeking tough answers to hard questions. We have no absolute standards for guidance. We're more likely to blur the issues, no matter how well meaning, by appeals to what's practical, what works, what's cost-effective, what suits our politics, and what suits our open society. Most of all, it's about what suits us.

Two issues before us today focus on questions that men and women of good faith debate with less than absolute judgment. Opinion gets mixed up in the political process. The answers don't come easily.

Congress last week enacted a prohibition on what has become known as "partial-birth abortion." It's a cruel process, one that kills the baby as it emerges from its mother's body and the doctor crushes the baby's head and applies an instrument that sucks out the brain. It's easy to oppose such a horrific procedure, though the debate gets bogged down in legalisms over whether a doctor should be able to kill the baby if medically necessary to save the mother.

Those at the extremes of the argument move quickly into the politics of abortion. Will this legislation infringe on a woman's right to choose? Is it a positive step for pro-life forces, who oppose all abortions? But these are the wrong questions. The grotesque cruelty of the procedure makes it necessary to ban it; a late abortion exception of a more benign nature should be limited to the health of the mother. Why can't something as elemental as that be described clearly and plainly?

When the courts legalized abortion, proponents of Roe vs. Wade never imagined the extreme barbarity of partial-birth abortion. We must stand firmly against it. This is not a pro-choice or pro-life issue, but about a vile method of death that we cannot allow.

Other answers are not nearly so clear-cut. In Florida, legislators debated another life issue, whether Terri Schiavo, who has lived in a vegetative state for 15 years, should be deprived of the feeding tube that keeps her alive. She left no document saying what her choice would be; her husband says she would want to die. He sought to have the feeding tube withdrawn and the courts agreed after five years of litigious haggling.

Mrs. Schiavo's parents, who see life behind their daughter's eyes, say she responds to the soothing voice of her mother. They believe that her life offers hope and want to continue feeding her. They lost the battle in the courts.

But once the court order was obeyed and the feeding tube was withdrawn, the Florida legislature hastily enacted a law directing that the tube be applied once more, and Gov. Jeb Bush quickly enforced the law.

This is a medical and moral muddle of the worst kind. It's unfortunate that Mrs. Schiavo hasn't left a living will, saying what she would have wanted. That would have simplified the issue for everybody and neatly prescribed "death with dignity" under Florida law. Her neglect is a caution to the rest of us.

But the Florida law is clear that a legal guardian - in this case the husband- can seek legal permission to conclude treatment in the certain circumstances met in this case. A judge ruled in the husband's favor, over the objections of her parents. The ruling was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. That's when the legislature and the governor intervened.

We're fortunate that our Constitution divides church and state, but state legislatures and Congress are often called on to make moral decisions that in other centuries and in other places were determined by priests and rabbis. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find standards of what seems right and wrong. They're rarely absolute.

The ban against partial birth abortion comes down on the side of honoring human life, and the physician's oath to "First, do no harm." Congress debated at length, and enacted the legislation and sent it to George W. Bush to sign. Whether Mrs. Schiavo should continue to be fed is, it seems to me, a more complicated issue.

By most medical evaluations she is brain dead and any movement perceived by others is not directed by consciousness. None of us can play God, but after 15 years in a vegetative state perhaps we should allow Mrs. Schiavo to die.

We can only see through a glass darkly, and it's the glimmer of light behind the glass that makes us human. We don't always see the answers clearly, but we must strive to do the best we can - with faith, hope and charity.