The Corner

Schiavo Round-Up

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.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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