Schiavo Round-Up

by John Derbyshire

Just a few points from the Schiavo mailbag.

—[Reader] Mark Steyn nailed it in his column yesterday: “In practice, a
culture that thinks Terri Schiavo’s life in Florida or the cleft-lipped
baby’s in Herefordshire has no value winds up ascribing no value to life in

—[JD] I love Mark as a man and a brother, and perhaps the most brilliant
opinion journalist of our time, but on this point he is wrong. His argument
is that demographic vitality correlates with uncompromising respect for
human life in all conditions. Does it? The most sensational demographic
explosion that England ever enjoyed was in the Regency and early-Victorian
periods, when families of 15 or 20 children were common. Respect for life
in that time and place can be examined in the novels of Charles Dickens.
But why leave the present day for a counterexample? My Economist handbook
of world facts and figures shows the most demographically vital nations
(avge. number of children per woman, 2000-05) as Niger, Yemen, Somalia, and
Angola. On Mark’s thesis, the Schiavo parents should sneak their daughter
out of that hospice and ship her off to Niger. Will Mark be recommending
this course of action to the Schindlers?

—[Reader] You think we Right-to-Life proponents are ‘absolutists’ and you
trash Intelligent Design, yet you call yourself a conservative?

—[JD] It is news to me that you have to sign on to Roman Catholic dogma
or swallow pseudoscientific claptrap before calling yourself a conservative.
In any case, I decline to do either thing (though I would do the first long
before I did the second).

—[Reader] Since you are willing to starve Terri to death, what do you say
to just shooting her in the head? What’s the difference?

—[JD] The difference, for crying out loud, is that the one thing is
morally acceptable to the US public (including me), and the other isn’t.
You can construct any number of bogus arguments like this. Sample: “Since
you are willing to see convicted criminals locked up in cells, what do you
say we hang them on the wall in shackles and flog them with piano wire twice
a day?” What laws do is, they draw lines, according to the general sense of
the people at any time. The general sense of the people of Florida at this
time is that they are willing to countenance starvation of PVS cases. We
know this because their representatives passed the relevant law, with no
great public clamor; and their elected governor, Jeb Bush, signed it. The
people of Florida are not, however (I feel sure) willing to countenance
shooting in the head. Neither am I. Is this logical of us? Probably not;
but we are speaking of human affairs, not trigonometry. Is 55mph a more
logical speed limit than 65, or 54, or 155? Why can we execute for a crime
committed at 18, but not for one committed as 17¾? Isn’t it illogical? I
suppose it is; but on this kind of argument, we’d have no laws at all. If
you don’t like this law, go down to Florida and agitate to have it changed,
and stop bothering me with shallow sophistries.

—[Reader] For all you know about what’s going on inside Terri’s skull,
she might be dreaming the most beautiful dreams in there.

—[JD] I suppose she might. She might also be in her 16th year of
agonized uncontrollable screaming. I should think the latter, if she has
any self-awareness at all, is far more probable.

—[Reader] Why don’t you just come right out and say you want to kill
Terri Schiavo?

—[JD] Because I am a person who tries to be scrupulous in my use of
language. If I hear someone say: “I want to kill X,” that signifies to me
that the speaker is in a certain state of mind. I am not at all in that
state of mind. Fooling around with words gets us nowhere. Strictly
speaking, keeping children confined in schools all day is a form of
imprisonment. Strictly speaking, clipping my fingernails is a form of
self-mutilation. (I believe there is a Hindu sect that refuses to clip
fingernails on precisely these grounds.) Would you, or any sane person,
actually use the words “imprisonment” and “self-mutilation” in those
contexts? Of course not. We try to use language to convey facts about the
world and about our own inner states. My own inner state in re Terri
Schiavo is not at all the one conveyed by the words “want to kill…” I
don’t even know the woman, and have no power to do anything to her anyway.
I am paid to express my opinions, though; and my opinion is, that the desire
of Terri’s husband that she starve to death is more humane and compassionate
than the desire of her parents, Andy, Ramesh, Kathryn, and the Pope – all of
whom I admire and respect — that she linger indefinitely in her present
condition. I may as well accuse Andy, Ramesh, etc. of “wanting to trap her
helplessly in a hospice bed for another 15 years.” I don’t talk like that
because I have scruples about language.

—[Reader] You have a dog, which you tell us you love very much. Would
you sit and watch your dog starve to death?

—[JD] If he was in a PVS and the prognosis was for 15 more years of the
same, I certainly would. And though I resist the analogy from animals to
humans, I must say, it is plain to me that Boris is far more aware of what
is happening to him than Terri Schiavo is.

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