I've been very upset by questions raised by the events related to Terri Schiavo's death. The "easy" way to handle my unsettled feelings is to take some side, but realistically I don't have enough information to make any accurate assessments of what should have or should not have been done in Terri's particular situation. I know that it frightens me to think that the court considers one person's word "clear and convincing evidence." It doesn't necessarily frighten me because I think Michael himself is an abusive person--I wouldn't know that; and to keep this discussion from getting lost in pure emotionalism I need to concede that I don't know it. But I am afraid of what power this precedent could provide to a person who *has been* abusive. Precedent is what always matters, and either way the case went a precedent would be set. I think that some people might criticize me for fearing this precedent; yet they fear other precedents and seem to think it's all right for them to fear.
Debates have always bothered me. These are no exception. It seems that the "right-to-lifers" (for lack of a better term) in some cases like to build their cases by characterizing Michael Schiavo as an abuser, abandoner, heartless jerk, etc. On the other hand, the "right-to-die" group tends to build their case by characterizing the "right-to-lifers" as unthinking "conservatives" who want to legislate values. I'd have a lot easier time thinking through this if both sides would lose the defend and attack mentality and just state their cases. Sadly, most people I know go automatically into defend and attack mode because they've never learned any way to talk about their thoughts and feelings without using personal attacks.
Why does this spark such fear in me? I've been told I take it "personally." Yes, I do. I've already had some discussions about potential care options just based on the idea that I experience disorientation and mental confusion and sometimes have difficulty standing up without assistance. Do I fear being severely disabled? Yes! Do I want to live as a severely disabled person? No. But I'm already more disabled than I used to be. I'd rather finish out my life and experience as much of it as I can than die, especially a long and potentially uncomfortable death. Besides, I can't change my mind and come back from the dead. So yes, I do take this personally. It could affect me someday. This debate raises a lot of questions that we as individuals and as a society should consider very carefully.
I keep hearing that "courts have ruled that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state." What features distinguish persistent vegetative state from minimal consciousness, and how can it be determined whether a behavior is reflexive or whether a lack of behavior is a profoundly disabled person's attempt to exercise control over when and what she does (in other words to communicate, "I don't perform on command like an animal")?
Declaring someone to be in a persistent vegetative state is a complex diagnosis that requires several tests. Doctors and medical specialists who have actually examined the records and Terri Schiavo are in the best position to do so. Might they disagree? As someone with personal experience with severe injury, yes, doctors will disagree even in the most severe cases. (Shane Thacker commenting in a blog)
So what to make of her brain damage and behavior. Following familiar people with the eyes is easily explained as a reflex, as is smiling or even making sounds in response to other sounds, etc.. Not that a comparison should be made between Terri and an infant, but, even the smallest infants respond favorably to certain types of faces, music, etc.. They clearly have not had time to learn that these things are favorable or that they “like” them, however, they respond in a manner in which we interpret as “likeful” nonetheless. This is because, in all likelihood, these behaviors are inborn, or instinctive. Whether or not Terri is responding through an instinctive related pathway, which need not involve any higher cortical function (even the visual cortex is not needed, it can be carried through the supior colliculus), or if she is minimally conscious is open for debate. The fact, though, that she illustrates no other forms of higher function or mental processing strongly suggests that she has none. (Ted commenting in the blog)
There is not a conclusive test, and in fact a number of people feel that the use of the term "persistent vegetative state" presents serious ethical problems. It assumes that consciousness is necessary to achieve personhood. Why have anti-abortionists become involved? Because this is the same question raised by the concept of "choice." Is the affected body a person, or is it just a body?
Without being inside the PVS patient's mind, is it possible to know without a doubt that she cannot feel pain or experience any of the same desires that a newborn infant experiences? If the answer is no, is the newborn's life only valuable because it is assumed that the newborn will progress to a state of health and "acceptable" functionality? If the answer is yes, where do we draw the line regarding meaningful quality of life? A lot of statements have been made during the process of settling Terri Schiavo's fate that are rightly offensive to people with severe disabilities or who are at risk for severe disabilities. How can we assure that this line is not crossed in the name of "right to die" issues?
... It is not fair to say “That poor woman, they’re going to starve her to death and she’s helpless” anymore than it’s fair to say “That poor woman, they’re going to keep her trapped in that body and she just wants to die.” None of us are qualified to make either statement. Neither are congressmen. What I know is this: If I were in that position, the person that I would want making the call, after medical experts weighed in, is my husband. Not Tom DeLay, not misguided Pro-Life advocates. (comment by C. Snyder)
This comment tells us that she trusts her husband, which is a good thing. Some women don't--and some women can't. Should the husband always be considered the best person to make these decisions? The parents? Is it appropriate to assume that a particular type of relative (sister, husband, mother, etc.) will by default act in the best interest of the person in question? In cases where family members are in dispute, how can we safeguard against abuse of disabled people by a single person who is given legal responsibility without risking unwanted control of other family members or outsiders in private affairs? If protective service agencies are not permitted to investigate a situation, why do we have such agencies at all? How can it be determined without such an investigation that claims of abuse are unsubstantiated? How thorough was the investigation in Terri's case, and when was it done? This kind of knowledge would do a lot to help me allay some of my own fears regarding the setting of a precedent for blind trust in one family member.
What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? What is the meaning of prolonging life? What is the natural dying process? When a person can breathe on her own and digest what is provided, why does it matter whether food is provided by mouth or by alternative means? Since there are walking, talking people who depend on feeding tubes for nourishment, I assume that the difference lies in the healthy person's definition of quality of life. Given the fact that the person could live a long life if provided nourishment and the fact that it would be considered inhumane to refuse to feed her if she could swallow but was unable to use her hands and unable to speak to request food when she was hungry, why is it acceptable to starve her to death? Only because we don't allow euthanasia in this country? Then shall we allow euthanasia? Or shall we reexamine the meaning of the dying process?