Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Living & The Dead

I am sick of and sickened by the Terri Schiavo case. Imagine your spouse, same sex or opposite, in what doctor after doctor has pronounced a persistent vegetative state. Imagine numerous brain scans showing no activity, or little activity in areas that made them who they were; the way they move, the timbre of their voice, their laugh, their smile, their opinions. Would you want to keep someone alive just to be able to say they're alive and without anything that makes them truly alive?

This isn't about judgement; i.e. I'm not suggesting we dispose of low-functioning people like they used to drown kittens in the river. I'm also not suggesting that measures shouldn't be taken to save someone's life. I'm suggesting that when life is no longer life as we know it, then we should consider very strongly the possibility that life should end. I have a friend who is a neonatal nurse who has witnessed babies born missing half a brain, all of their limbs, one eye, one kidney, children who wouldn't live for another 24 hours whose birth was only miraculous. Do we ask doctors to go to extraodinary lengths to save these children who will never experience life as we define life? Is it right to keep alive via electric stimulation a baby who won't live to see childhood just so we can say we did the right thing? When is the right thing not really the right thing?

I realize this is a sticky wicket. I am a Christian and I believe that God creates life and God ends life in His/Her time. I also believe, very strongly, that God lets us know when something should happen. That voice that says turn right instead of left. The third bout of bronchitis and you're still smoking. Those are signs that a change needs to happen. Terri Schiavo's brain scans show massive damage in areas of her brain that control speech, movement, thought, and the ability to feed oneself. Lesser damage, but damage nonetheless, has affected brain areas that control breathing. Are these not signs that after 15 years of no progress, that there is nothing more than a heart beating in a shell? What kind of life can one experience if the only response is to painful stimuli?

I feel for her parents. Western society never talks about the parent's experience on a child's wedding day. Even when you like the man or woman they end up with, you've spent more than 20 years molding and shaping them, wanting them to live the life you did, wanting them to be little versions of you, or better. You have to let go, and you don't really want to. And then what happens if you don't like your child's spouse, and a situation arises where you have to entrust your child's life to someone you don't care for, for whatever the reasons. But you still have to let go. Traditional societies in Africa feature final rites of passage from boy to man upon leaving their parents' hut and moving into their own. Western society hasn't mastered this. We must learn how and when to let go.

I've seen parents of gay men come in and totally shut out the longtime partner of their son who succumbed to AIDS, seizing assets, personal belongings, mementos of their relationship. I've seen funerals turn into virulent anti-gay, anti-AIDS crusades. I've seen swishy-in-life men turned uber-masculine in death; the bright colors and flowing fabrics that once adorned replaced by a somber gray suit for burial. I've read obituaries that never mentioned a 20-year partner, or worse, described him as a "friend" or "roommate." Just last year, I went to a funeral for a lesbian whose partner sat not with the grieving family, but several rows behind. All this cruelty in the name of God's will.

And so, Bob and Mary Schindler, desperately trying to assure themselves that they are doing God's will, are fighting desperately to keep her alive, even alleging that Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, abused her. Where are the police reports? The medical reports indicating abuse? Even if Michael did abuse his wife, how does that explain away the eating disorder that caused a heart attack in a 20-something-year-old woman? Supposedly (just because I haven't seen the reports), Terri had healed fractures. Doesn't malnourishment cause brittle bones which would break easily? Wouldn't a loss of muscle mass, caused by excessive weight loss and improper nutrition affect bone density? Or even compromise the body's ability to protect the bones from breaking?

Jack Aiello, a Rutgers University psychology professor said it best: "The more strongly one side's beliefs are held, the more likely it is to perceive the other side as an exaggeration of all that is wrong." In other words, if you say it loudly enough, people will eventually think you're right. But this case, reaching the White House, for pete's sake, is an all-too-clear example said all too well in a James Brown lyric: talkin' loud and sayin' nothin'. This case should never have reached Florida governor Jeb Bush's desk, nor should it have gone all the way to the White House. Thankfully, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

I am sorry that Terri has to experience the effects of the removal of her feeding tube. I am sorry that her parents will choose to witness her demise, and I'm sorry that Michael has become the devil incarnate, depending on who you ask. But, I'm most sorry that people ignored the signs that God sent that it's time to let Terri go.

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