The great quandary

Posted: Mar 22, 2005 12:00 AM
What was good was that the resources of the entire nation, so it seemed, could be aroused with only the end in mind of sparing -- more accurately, prolonging -- a single life. It was left only to mobilize the Seventh Fleet to level a thousand guns on the doctors engaged in removing the tubes from Terri Schiavo. Not since 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez was ordered by the courts to return to Cuba, there to submit to a lifetime of servitude under Fidel Castro Inc., had there been such a mobilization of public sentiment.

What broke the back of the Free Elian movement was a social convention: deferral to the wishes of the father. He wanted Elian home and traveled to Florida to pick him up after an eristic judicial storm -- which ended with the simple daybreak that the future of a child is to be decided by his parents.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, orderly thought would have led us to believe that her treatment was the next of kin's to decide. But human concern for Mrs. Schiavo interposed qualifiers: The husband had attached himself to another woman, by whom another family had begun. This suggested a diluted moral, though not legal, authority of the husband. Then the father and the mother of the stricken girl argued to keep her alive -- to keep her pulse beating. Terri is not, repeat not, brain-dead, though she is unable to communicate.

Meanwhile, the courts of Florida were guided, or seemed to be, by precedents that treated as relevant only the absence of a living will by Mrs. Schiavo, and the legal recognition of her husband as head of the family. The two considerations estopped any movement by the courts to assume authority, as though she belonged to them.

Those many who pleaded to continue the patient's life emphasized the theoretical possibility of a cure, or a rehabilitation of sorts. On this point her parents argued most tenaciously. They released, over the weekend, tapes made of their afflicted daughter, which could be interpreted as showing Terri to be responding to stimuli of various kinds.

But the world was looking at a woman whose immobilizing heart attack happened 15 years ago. An anonymous doctor declared flatly that she had a flat EEG (electroencephalogram, the brain-wave test).

The political impulse was heartening, even if the hopes voiced were falsetto science. What caused the political commotion was the sense that we were presiding over an execution. Terri Schiavo remained "alive" until we stopped feeding her. Then she began a fall through a trapdoor descending toward death. She was being committed to a death of an agonizing kind, surely? One that began with the removal of the tubes, and would continue until starvation and dehydration brought on the end of the heartbeat.

Some years ago, in a forum on euthanasia, my guest was the Rev. Robert L. Barry, who had studied the subject extensively. Father Barry argued that the deprivation of food and water brings on physical pain whatever else the human condition. Was the court system in Florida, then, acquiescing in death by pain for Mrs. Schiavo?

A doctor consulted by one television analyst brushed aside the question, in language not readily transcribed by a layman. He seemed to be saying that Mrs. Schiavo would not suffer pain as the term is commonly understood. But that question was not directly accosted by the judge, who said only that Terri's rights had not been abrogated.

It was unseemly for critics to compare her end with that of victims of the Nazi regime. There was never a more industrious inquiry than in the Schiavo case, into the matter of rights formal and inchoate. It is simply wrong, whatever is felt about the eventual abandonment of her by her husband, to use the killing language. She was kept alive for 15 years, underwent a hundred medical ministrations, all of them in service of an abstraction, which was that she wanted to stay alive. There are laws against force-feeding, and no one will know whether, if she had had the means to convey her will in the matter, she too would have said, Enough.