The Schiavo case has come and not quite gone, because there is a feeling out there, largely unexamined, that we were engaged in putting somebody to death, and the role of protracted executioner is hard to accept. This is the age in which we give careful attention to means by which to contract the suffering of convicted killers, absolutely eliminating corporal pain. It is understandably difficult to accustom the body politic to superintend an execution that lasts weeks.
The great hangover from the Schiavo experience has to do with the question of execution presided over by oneself. The question is scheduled to be joined at several levels. Judicially, the Supreme Court has agreed to weigh the Oregon law. Politically, the legislatures of Vermont and California have tentatively agreed to put the matter of assisted death on their own agendas. Polls indicate that the majority of Americans favor some kind of assisted death procedures.
One wonders what points in particular are going to arrest the attention of the Supreme Court. If a citizen swallows a lethal dose of Nembutal, it can’t be argued persuasively that he is suffering beyond the boundaries of cruelty prohibited by the Constitution. And in any case, the question of cruelty is conjoined to the question of punishment, and the idea of punishment is entirely alien to the question of assisted death.
The court may be ruling, extraneously, on the impositions of the Oregon law on other doctors than those who agree to take advantage of it. Already, a majority of the doctors of Oregon decline, or are forbidden by a non-governmental authority, to prescribe the killing dose. Most conspicuously, the Catholic hospitals will not permit doctors affiliated with them to prescribe such doses. And there are other doctors, not bound by religious principles, who are refusing–or declining–to give such “medicines.” It is acknowledged that some doctors will administer mortal doses, without prescribing them. That marginal shot of morphine that ends life is sometimes given, and is widely not “noticed” by attendant nurses, if the view of the patient is that pain is being spared and that recovery is inconceivable.
Ardent and eloquent advocates of life are mobilized on the subject. Marc Thiessen, a young gentleman of political affairs and a writer in Washington, cautions in National Review Online against any lassitude in the matter of medically assisted life-ending. It is highly relevant, during these hours, to cite the teachings of Pope John Paul, who has classified suffering as a gift. “This pope does not ask for relief from his sufferings,” Thiessen writes. “To the contrary, a bishop once told me that the pope used to refuse medication precisely because it interfered with his suffering. He has a mystical relationship with his suffering, offering it up for us and the whole world.”
This is a sophisticated, as sharply distinguished from sophistical, reading of pain. Its sacred origin is the pain of Christ: Why did he linger three hours on the cross? Because, Christians believe, his doing so was a sacred contribution to the alleviation of sin.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the late essayist, wit, and Christian convert, opined with absolute integrity on the importance to him of the suffering he underwent in his last years, a kind of expiation for his and others’ sins.
But that is an afflatus that doesn’t automatically create political majorities in secular cultures. The older woman or man suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may elect to countenance suffering, but there are those who are not yet suffering who will take less than normative positions on how much, and until what point, people should suffer who do not wish to suffer and who welcome death as the single achievable balm.
These will be heard from in the passage of political time, and it is not easy to reply to them by offering them the special intellectual and emotional solace of the martyr’s suffering.
It is for this reason that the post-Schiavo, post-papal ordeal will be long lasting, and predictable in the place it will occupy in the politics of the future.