Politics & Policy

George Orwell & Terri Schiavo

Euphemisms about life and death.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt, goes the saying. Indeed, it is something very important to supporters of ending Terri Schiavo’s life, judging by their head-spinning evasions.

A woman who might (or might not) be in a persistent vegetative state, but who is otherwise not ill and can continue to live for years despite her profound disability, is dying because we are refusing to give her sustenance. We are affirmatively ending her life, perhaps against her will, because there is no way now to know her will. Supporters of this act feel compelled to try to pretty it up.

They say that Terri is being “allowed to die.” No. She is being made to die. All across America, in hospitals, mental wards, and institutions for the severely disabled, there are people who, if we withdrew our care for them, would die. We wouldn’t call this “allowing” them to die. We would call it scandalous neglect.

George Felos, the lawyer for Terri’s husband, Michael, explains his position in the case thusly: “I firmly believe in the right of individuals to make their own medical-treatment choices.” But Terri is not making her medical choices. Choices are being made for her, perhaps (if you believe Michael Schiavo) on the basis of things she said a decade ago, perhaps (if you don’t) in the absence of any stated preference.

After visiting her bedside recently, Felos declared, “In all the years I’ve seen Mrs. Schiavo, I’ve never seen such a look of peace and beauty upon her.” Maybe Felos has forgotten: If she is indeed in a persistent vegetative state, as he maintains, she can’t feel anything, let alone a sense of peace that would make her radiant with beauty.

One expert told the New York Times that “no one is denying this woman food and water.” Really? Then why is she dying? Is it merely a coincidence that she might experience kidney failure from dehydration at any time?

This expert’s argument is that, since she is in a persistent vegetative state, she has “no knowledge of food.” By this logic it would be morally acceptable to suffocate her with a pillow since she has “no knowledge of air.” She could be dropped out of a 15-story window because she has “no knowledge of gravity.” She could be shot because she has “no knowledge of ballistics.”

Then there is the misuse of words that are thrown at Republicans to prove their alleged hypocrisy. For example: Why aren’t conservatives respecting the “sanctity of marriage” here? But Michael Schiavo–perhaps understandably, given the wrenching circumstances–long ago moved in with another woman, with whom he has two children. This is no longer a case of simon-pure “sanctified” marriage.

Or how about “federalism,” supposedly trampled by the GOP Congress? But federalism means a division of the branches of government, all with their designated powers. When state and federal courts willfully strike down or ignore laws passed by democratically elected legislatures, this is not “federalism,” but a perversion of the country’s constitutional scheme.

Felos says Terri would want us to “ask ourselves the questions: What’s the purpose of my life? And how can I best fulfill that? And how can I be of service to others?” Those are important questions, but ones liable to produce answers that might confound all our expectations. Terri Schiavo might have believed, before her tragic injury, that her purpose was to be a loving wife and mother. Now, in circumstances that would have horrified her, her purpose might be to give a kind of comfort to her family and to demonstrate to those around her the value of life, even when our capacities are heartbreakingly diminished.

Despite the spiritual-sounding mumbo jumbo, Felos and his allies want to foreclose the possibility of this purpose. They believe that some people’s lives are meaningless and expendable. There is something chilling about that, which is why they so often resort to weasel words and gauzy euphemisms.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate


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