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The vulnerability of Terri Schiavo

Vasily Vereshchagin. Letter to Mother.
(Vasily Vereshchagin. Letter to Mother. Source)

1) Introduction

For each of the past three days, I've been asked for my opinion on the Terri Schiavo case. She's the US citizen of 41 years of age who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years, and who no longer receives food or drink since March 18th, 2005, at the request of her husband.

Here is an overview of my opinion:

- I don't have access to reliable information on this case.
- I observe many sophisms, in the media and among people I know.
- I deplore that shrillness seems proportional to ignorance.
- This case raises important moral questions.

2) Reliable sources of information concerning Terri Schiavo

I don't know this lady, or her husband, or her parents, or the judges involved in this case. I'm not a physician, or a lawyer. I've never seen the medical reports concerning this lady. If somebody asked me where to go for reliable information about this case, I wouldn't even know what to say (although the web site of Mrs. Schiavo's family seems better than nothing).

In this text, I'll try to limit myself to the aspects of the problem which don't depend on knowledge of the details of the Schiavo case.

3) Some sophisms disseminated by certain journalists

I've never given a medical check-up to Terri Schiavo, but I've seen and heard some reports in the media, and some comments by people around me.

3.1) The "Bushist" sophism

	George W. Bush says we must continue to feed Terri Schiavo.

	But, George W. Bush is an idiot.

	Therefore, we must stop feeding Terri Schiavo.

Quite frankly, I don't see what is the relation with George W. Bush. Some people (like myself) can't stand George (See "Right-Wing Christians Against Bush's Sins"), while still maintaining that a patient has a right to palliative care.

3.2) The "Lawyer Army" sophism

	Terri Schiavo has an expensive army of lawyers defending her rights.

	But, many US citizens are just as sick as Mrs. Schiavo and can't
	afford a lawyer, so they get "unplugged" with no media hype.

	Therefore, we must stop feeding Terri Schiavo.

As far as I know, there are very serious social problems in the USA: the erosion of the middle class, the large number of people who don't have good health insurance, the incredible wastage of energy and natural resources, and I'm not even going to talk about military spending...

But none of this means the number of lawyers you have makes you either right or wrong.

I fully agree that it is always scandalous to see poor people suffering injustice. But that doesn't mean "bad" all of a sudden becomes "good" just because your credit cards are not maxed out. For example, it is a crime to rape a poor woman, and it doesn't stop being a crime if that woman finds a winning lottery ticket in her purse.

The demagogues who use this sophism play on the greed and envy of the crowds, and try to fan hatred of the "rich" (who are often rich only in the imagination of those demagogues!).

3.3) The Death Penalty sophism

	Some people claim we have to continue feeding Terri Schiavo.

	But, some of those persons are in favor of the death penalty.

	Therefore, we must stop feeding Terri Schiavo.

Opinions on the death penalty are irrelevant. Some people are against the death penalty, while claiming that patients have a right to palliative care. The Terri Schiavo case must be assessed in itself, not by looking at the accessory opinions of some persons.

This essay is neither an article on the death penalty, nor a catechism course, but I can't avoid quoting the Catechism. Indeed, if we believed some journalists, Catholics would be in favor of the death penalty for parking infractions!

The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of men effectively against the aggressor.

If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'
[Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267]

Come to think of it, that quote is a wonderful lesson on the dignity of human life.

3.4) The sophism of dignified death

	The Terri Schiavo case is shamelessly exploited by the media.

	But, people have a right to a dignified death.

	Therefore, we have to stop feeding Terri Schiavo, because the faster
	she dies, the sooner the media will stop exploiting her.

Whether Terri Schiavo is on a desert island, or surrounded by more or less honest journalists doesn't change a thing about the morality of this case. Mrs. Schiavo is not guilty of being in the news.

3.5) The sophism of "Therapeutic Harassment"

	I'm able to feed myself.

	But, Terri Schiavo is not able to feed herself.

	Therefore, we have to stop feeding Terri Schiavo, otherwise it's
	"Therapeutic Harassment".

At some point of time, we have to stop playing with words. The definition of "Therapeutic Harassment" changes with technology. For example, a blood transfusion is today a simple, safe and relatively inexpensive procedure. But at some point of time in the past, it was a highly risky and very expensive operation.

Many people today live while being "slaves" of some technology. Think of hemodialysis, or of one of my buddies who can't live without his injection of insulin.

A feeding tube is not sophisticated or risky technology. This in itself doesn't mean we must continue to feed Terri Schiavo. On the other hand, talking about "Therapeutic Harassment" is incorrect. All men need water, food, warmth, etc., to live. Providing palliative care to a patient, until nature follows her course and the patient dies of a natural death is not "Therapeutic Harassment".

Feeding and hydration, even artificial, are part of the normal cures to which a patient always has a right when they are not dangerous for him: their undue interruption could take on the meaning of a true euthanasia.
[Sgreccia, p. 779]

4) Shrillness directly proportional to ignorance

If your car broke down along the highway, and a stranger came up and started explaining how to fix your car, what would you do? Should you listen to him? An easy test could be to ask him simple questions like: "Could you put your finger on the battery, sir?", or "Where is the radiator?". If this stranger couldn't even answer those basic questions, you would be justified to doubt the quality of his mechanical advice!

Do yourself a favor: next time some stranger tells you we should stop feeding Terri Schiavo, ask him a few simple questions:

- "What is morality?"

- Since you assert that it is true that we must stop feeding Terri Schiavo, you must therefore know a little bit what truth is! What is truth?, and what is science?"

- "Have you even read on single good bioethics book in your lifetime, like for example Elio Sgreccia's? book?"

I'm not saying everybody should be able to give perfect answers to all these questions, but we should at least know a little bit what we're talking about, especially if we're talking very loudly...

5) A few moral questions raised by the Schiavo case

5.1) In which Aristotelian category does human dignity fall in?

You all remember Aristotle's Ten Categories: substance, quantity, quality, relation, location, time, position (or configuration), action, passion (as in "something you are subject to"), and "habitus".

Those ten categories are divided into two main groups: substance and the nine accidents. For example, I'm currently sitting down. Now, I'm grabbing my laptop and standing up. My position (or configuration) has changed. I'm thirsty (passion). Later on I will drink and I won't be thirsty anymore. On the other hand, my quantity will have changed (I'll be a bit heavier, because of the water I will have taken). Despite all these changes in my accidents, my substance has remained constant. I have remained a man.

Is "Human Dignity" an accident that can be lost while we are still alive, or is it necessarily related to our substance, in such a way that as long as we live, we have human dignity?

5.2) Where does human dignity come from?

Is human dignity conferred on us by the Supreme Court? Or the Parliament? Or do we have to wait for an e-mail from the Pope?

Can our human dignity be removed? Can others remove it from me? Do I myself have the power to remove my own human dignity, and then kill myself without committing a murder?

When a man is in a "vegetative state", does that mean he really becomes a vegetable, like a carrot or a celery? To use big philosophical words, what is the "ontological principle" which maintains that person alive? Another way of approaching that problem is to ask what is the nature of the human soul, and what is its relation with a "vegatative state"?

5.3) Why do Christians claim that we are created in the image and likeness of God?

What's so special about our reason and free-will, according to Christians? Is this true?

5.4) Have you ever heard of a patient who asked to die of hunger and thirst?

Just a silly clerical curiosity on my part. I've heard of patients asking their physician to administer to them a dose of poison, so they would die quickly and painlessly. I've also seen dog owners ask that for their dogs. On the other hand, I've never heard of a patient explicitly asking that we let him die slowly of hunger and thirst, for several long weeks.

Just asking, like that.

6) Conclusion

There is no conclusion to this text, just a wish:

Let's not leave our common sense die of hunger and thirst...


Terri Schiavo died of hunger and thirst on March 31st 2005.

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