The modern mercy death

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Mar 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Death is a complicated process that sometimes tiptoes into the body, speaking in whispers, barely audible, quiet as a Buddha in meditation.

At other times Death is the circus come to town, accompanied by clowns running and jumping and tumbling, beating drums, promising celebration and a noisy wake of drunken voices prepared to mourn with memories animated by laughter, tears and sparkling water drowned in whiskey.

Emily Dickinson likens death to a courteous ride in a horse drawn carriage: "Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me." The poet describes the manners and civility that surround a process requiring solemnity and style. She reflects on mortality with respect for the dying and tender consideration for those left behind.

Terri Schiavo has not been so fortunate. She's caught in turbulence, jostled by men and women with suspect motives, staying alive in the twilight zone. Outsiders come and go, commenting on her bedridden body as though she were merely a specimen on the medical examiner's table.

Journalists, unlike poets or philosophers, rarely grapple with the profundities of death, compelled by the limits of time and space to reduce tragedy to data, but this time we're awash in talk of epic proportions, scratching our chins and furrowing our brows trying to sound sage. We search religious and literary texts to help us to a Solomonic decision.

Politics, of course, is always with us, and there's grandstanding aplenty in the teasing out of fact and "factoid" to reinforce ideological, moral and legal interpretation. The most disturbing remarks of all are aimed by the arrogantly skeptical at the religious who regard the "sanctity of life" as the most precious priority.

I find it hard to argue with the president. "In cases like this one," he said, signing the legislation giving Terri Schiavo one last, forlorn chance to live, "where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life." I'm not a Catholic, but like the Vatican, I'm saddened by the vulgarity of language that intrudes on this discussion: "Who can decide to pull the plug as if we were talking about a broken or out of order household appliance?"

Questions naturally emerge from moral and legal spheres, which, taken together, are worthy of the arguments drawn by Sophocles in "Antigone," the ancient Greek tragedy that explores conflicts that arise when state power is assumed to be greater than divine power, when a king takes away the rights of a family to follow traditional burial rites. Did Creon or Antigone have the better argument?

The moral issue in the Schiavo case is a simple one: Given the medical doubts about Terri Schiavo's diagnosis, we must ask: Should any patient be left to die without food and water when we are not absolutely, positively sure that's what she would want? The legal issue, after 15 years in a state court system that has sided with a husband seeking her death, further requires us to ask whether it's right for the federal courts to interfere with the courts of a state.

Blurring the known facts is the character of the husband. One fact, bluntly stated in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, blinks on and off as if written in neon: "It was not until 1993, after a medical-malpractice jury awarded him roughly $1 million for Terri's long-term care, that he began to seek his wife's death."

Because there are mixed medical opinions as to the absolute degree of her brain damage and because her parents want to care for her at their own cost in money and time, it's fair to ask questions about the motives of a husband who wants to prevent Terri's parents from assuming her care and protection, relieving him of her responsibility and enabling him to move on with his new life. He becomes the weak link in the decision making, complicated by the fact that he now has a "fiance" with whom he has fathered two children.

German doctors determined who was "unfit to live" in the Third Reich at the beginning of the Nazi era, devising a long list of the mentally and physically handicapped as well as the Jews and the gypsies. These agents of the state decreed what they euphemistically called "mercy deaths" for the incurable. No one stood vigilance outside the killing rooms.

Solomon, I think, would have erred on the side of Terri Schiavo's devoted parents, letting Emily Dickinson have the last word:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops at all.