Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Reasonable Post

I am perfectly willing to believe that both the husband and the parents are sincere and faithful to their beliefs. I am also willing to believe the opposite, that both are acting out of their own emotional needs with no real regard for the human life at stake.

I know this is (or should be) a gut-wrenching decision for anyone with a family. What disturbs me is that the court is ordering this to take place. I realize that families make similar decision about their loved ones all the time. Even now other, less infamous individuals, are in identical circumstances. But these families reach a consensus in private, among themselves, in line with their beliefs. They don't use the power of the state to settle their disagreements. This seems like a situation where law, emotion, morality, and medicine clash and that all possible outcomes are bad. But that a judge has ordered this outcome repulses me.

I think the Congress should not be involved in a state matter, at least as I understand the current law. But both parties are wallowing in hypocrisy. If choosing to end a life is a state matter then so is abortion. How can there be a Constitutional 'right to choose' when ending a pregnancy but not when ending an adult life? If anything it should be the reverse. The adult is a citizen, recognized by the federal government. Is it unreasonable to suggest that the federal government should have some role in the way its citizens end their lives?

Moreover I foresee future cases that make this one look easy. Imagine a divorced couple where one parent has custody of a 12-year old. The child is in an accident and suffers brain damage. One parent wants to stop feeding and the other doesn't. Only one parent is the legal guardian, empowered to make life and death decisions. The child could not possibly have made a 'living will'. What are we to do? Does legal guardianship grant the power of life and death? Does the non-custodial parent have no say in the matter?

I realize that the feeding tube she was on is an artificial means of sustaining her life. But what about the next case where the patient can swallow but not chew? Can chew and swallow but not feed herself? Aren't quadriplegics kept alive by artificial means? Stroke victims? The seriously insane?

Since Western civilization is now more or less post-Christian these issues are confused and subject to raw political concerns. That is one reason that both parties are so mired in contradiction. The right is anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia and pro-capital punishment. The left is pro-choice for abortion and euthanasia and anti-capital punishment.

The court can order an citizen killed in some circumstances but not others but no one really know why. In the death penalty and in 'allowed to die' cases a legal decision results in the end of a human life. The Left says that a criminal might not have actually committed the crime he was convicted of so the state has no right to execute him. The Right says that the patient might not actually have declared her intention to be starved, or may have changed her mind. Does no one else see a contradiction here? In both cases there is a truth that we can never know with absolute certainty (whether the criminal committed the crime or whether the patient want to die). In both cases a court has made a determination regarding the legal status of that truth. So it's right to refuse this woman food but wrong to execute a murderer?

Our society needs to have a lengthy conversation about human life. What is life? What does it mean to be human? What is 'quality of life' and who gets to measure that when the individual cannot express herself? Does human life have some intrinsic, metaphysical value or should it be subject to arguments based on other (emotional, economic) criteria? When can life be ended and how? These are tough questions and deserve serious thought. I fear that if we leave this to the whims of our emotions, and the maneuvering of politicians and judges the outcomes will only be worse for everyone.