Friday, March 25, 2005

A Psalm for Terri Schiavo

"By coincidence, this Good Friday is the 10th anniversary date of Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae'' ("The Gospel of Life''), which called euthanasia `a grave violation of the law of God' and also decried abortion and most applications of the death penalty." -- Richard N. Ostling, AP Religion Writer, 3/25/05.

A woman in Florida named Terri Schiavo is dying. Some would deny the right to call her a woman, and would prefer to think of her as a vegetable. She lives, they insist, in a "vegetative state," kind of like broccoli on the supermarket shelf. If so, she/it is a vegetable who laughs at jokes, says words like "Hi" and "Pain," and recognizes family members. Fifteen years ago she suffered a heart attack, and since then she's been like old, rotting broccoli -- inconvenient, good for nothing, just lying there on the shelf. She won't go away. She just keeps on breathing and breathing. But not for long now. Terri Schiavo is being starved to death.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

To get at the root of the cancer you have to dig deep. We worship at the altar of selfhood, the church of convenience. We like the idea of sacrifice as long as we don't actually have to engage in it ourselves. We honor those noble men and women over in Iraq. We build memorials to all the soldiers in all the great wars who have protected freedom, the freedom to do whatever the hell we want.

But crucifixion is not convenient. The great physician has bleeding hands. They are not protected by rubber gloves. They are dirty, messy, covered with the filth of our denials and rationalizations, our excuses and refusals to engage. That's too bad about that woman in Florida, honey. Pass the popcorn.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored
Our sickness must grow worse.

We are terminal cases and we don't even know it. We think we will live forever. We think we can play the Lifeboat game and never end up outside the lifeboat ourselves. Sometimes we have to make hard moral choices, we tell ourselves. These things are complex. We speak of the quality of life as if it were the stock market report, something we could read off a ticker tape.

But we are terminal cases, every one of us, deathly ill, rotting away from the inside, painting our fingernails from our hospice beds.

God, help us to know our sickness.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

God, forgive us. God, forgive me. Burn up all that is worthless. Have mercy on who we are -- the damned, God-redeemed human race, men and women and vegetables with souls, searching for streams of living water and digging with all our might, digging furiously in the desert, hollowing out empty well after empty well, escape tunnels that only circle back on ourselves, always ourselves, broken and heartsick and desperately in need of what only God can offer. Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we do.

I am the bread of life, the wounded surgeon said. But yesterday the law of the United States denied the right of a Catholic priest to administer communion to Terri Schiavo. It's bread. It might help to keep her alive. It's wine. It might help to alleviate her thirst.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
-- T.S. Eliot, from "Four Quartets"

17 comments:

Jeff Cannell said...

god have mercy on us.

someday i'm going to have to explain this to my children. both my children have counted among their friends children who need feeding tubes to survive and are as communicative as Terri Schiavo. One of the many blessings of being students at Marburn Early Childhood Education Center. I have to explain to them that the enlightened masses of thinking America think this is just.

Not looking forward to it.

Jeff Cannell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mommy zabs said...

thanks for that andy.
elizabeth jackson (jeff cannell sis)

jlee said...

thank you andy,
it helped me put something in perspective that i just didn't have in perspective.

i am filled with tears.
jamie

brian estabrook said...

If only we had the same passion for the other 2 billion people on this earth who aren't sure where their next meal will come from.

danthress said...

Thank you Brian

I try to feel compassion for this issue, but all I see on TV is more division and another "hot-Christian issue" that's makes for good television. I realize this is my own flawed and jaded perspective, but how do we isolate this case from all the injustice happening at this very hour?

danthress said...

Please understand, I am part of the problem, and I'm reacting to CNN more than to Andy's eloquent and moving piece.

My only peace is that it makes me more convinced of supporting one of John's Asia Hope children. Out of all this mess, can each of us literally feed someone? A family member, neighbor, client, co-worker or another of the two million?

danthress said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Brian, I particularly liked your comment, and certainly agree that we ought to have the same passion and concern for the other 2 billion people on the planet who don't have anything to eat.

I've posted my musings about Terri Schiavo on a couple of Internet mailing lists. I've received quite a variety of responses -- mostly from people who accuse me of being an unwitting pawn in the hands of right-wing fascists and neo-Nazis (known as Republicans in more genteel circles) who are out to take over every aspect of our lives. This is, I suppose, in contrast to the wonderfully liberal laissez-faire attitude exhibited by the U.S. court system which has mandated that a women who was not dying should be starved to death.

Sometimes I despair of God's own U.S. of A., regardless of the party in power. For what it's worth, I am not a fascist, neo-Nazi, Republican, or Democrat. How can I be any of those things and claim to be a Christian? But Hitler seems to be very popular these days, judging by my e-mail. It's good to be loved. Apparently I'm easy to recognize. I'm the guy goosestepping down the street.

John McCollum said...

As I see it, there's no 'either/or' when it comes to caring for individuals and for large classes of people.

As Christians, we're authorized to pursue justice for individuals like Terri Schiavo AND for the billions of others out there who are dying.

I know that Dan and Andy and Brian all care about the overall problem of evil in this world, and are all committed to doing whatever they can to alleviate suffering and promote hope.

It's the individual cases that bring the overall problem into focus. I refuse to be made to choose between the two.

Andy Whitman said...

I notice that today (Tuesday) Michael Schiavo has requested that an autopsy be performed after his wife dies. I find a grim sort of humor in this. I predict that the autopsy findings will conclude that Terri died from a lack of food and water.

Fred Kohn said...

the problem I'm having with this whole issue is that there are many, many individuals like Terri Schiavo that never make the news. The reason: usually the family is in agreement with how to handle these individuals- sometimes on the side of continuing the care but much more commonly on the side of cutting it off. No one is appealing to the courts to step in saying that the family has no right to make this decision. No one is standing outside of hospitals weekly and protesting the way that some do in front of abortion clinics. And yet when Terri Schiavo hits the news we are suddenly supposed to realize the injustice of it all.

so- in the many cases where the doctors and the entire family are in agreement to cut off care, does the government have a responsibility to step in and insist that care continue? If it does, why are so very very few saying that it does? And if it doesn't, why are we yelling so loudly now?

Nancy and I knew one individual who ended up in a persistant vegetative state. The family in this case was in agreement that care should continue. However, he only lasted a year. I have to say that I think that it was a mercy.

annie said...

I'm terrified by all of this. It seems that we, as a society (especially those with the power to have their opinion heard) have decided that only the lives of some individuals are sacred. What's even more scary to me is that we think we get to be the ones to decide whose life is worthwhile and whose is not. We are dangerously close tomoving God out of the picture alltogether and stepping into what little space was still reserved Him in our public forums.
I truly believe that God is for life and that He must be so grieved by all of this. I believe that Terri Schiavo's death sentance is cruel, no matter what arguments her husband has made and that it's only worse because those in the position to speak for us as a people and to make the laws to govern us have stood up and said it's OK.
I fear the ripple effect of all of this and I pray for those other lives that will be made vulnerable as we begin to raise the bar on what we call life.

Here's a good link:
http://leaderu.com/socialsciences/dignityontrial.html

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, you’re raising the big issues in this debate. And they are not easy to resolve. Annie posted a link to an article that does a great job of summarizing the ethical issues from a Christian standpoint. To that article I would only add the following:

 Medical science now offers the means to prolong life well past the point that it would be prolonged if left to “natural” means. And that’s happened in Terri Schiavo’s case. Obviously, if “nature” were to take its course, people who can’t swallow would die for lack of food and water. But that’s a double-edged sword. Every night at 10:00 I stick a needle in my leg, which is attached to a syringe which contains insulin, which helps control my diabetes. Without such “unnatural” means I would die. So the question then becomes: which “unnatural” medical measures are warranted, and which are not? My answer: they’re all warranted. People die. It happens, and it happens inevitably. But it is the role of the medical profession to save life, not to take it. And it is the role of our legal system to protect life, not to take it. I will guarantee you that if this tragic situation had not occurred, Terri Schiavo would have died at some point, just as we all will die. But she would not have died like this. We have allowed the medical and legal worlds to play God in this case.

 Living wills have a purpose, and I am not opposed to them. I think it’s entirely appropriate for people to indicate that, if they are dying, their lives are not to be prolonged by extraordinary medical means. But there are two keys points in Terri Schiavo’s case: 1) she was not dying, and 2) food and water are not extraordinary medical measures. They are basic necessities of survival.

Frankly, I have big problems with the term “persistent vegetative state,” and it certainly doesn’t apply in Terri Schiavo’s case. It’s a dehumanizing term, and although the media is fond of it, I cordially hate it. In any case, vegetables don’t respond to family members, laugh at jokes, and communicate in words. Terri Schiavo does all of these things.

Here is Pope John Paul II on this issue, from an encyclical issued last year: "A man, even if seriously sick or prevented in the exercise of [his or her] higher functions, is and will be always a man ... [he] will never become a 'vegetable' or an 'animal.' The intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being does not change depending on their circumstance. Providing food and water to such patients is a natural thing to do and morally obligatory, not an optional extraordinary measure. In particular, I want to emphasize that the administration of water and food . . . always represents a natural means of preservation of life, not a medical treatment."

The teachings of the Catholic Church -- The Church that Michael Schiavo claims to follow -- are clear and unequivocal in this matter. Obviously I’m not a Catholic, but I believe the Pope’s position is consistent with what has been articulated by Christian thinkers for 2,000 years. There’s nothing new here from a Christian standpoint. What is new is the U.S. legal system’s novel interpretation of what constitutes life and what constitutes extraordinary medical measures.

 There are thousands who, like Terri Schiavo, must rely on feeding tubes to receive the nourishment needed to sustain life. No one, at least at this point, is suggesting that their feeding tubes be removed and that they be allowed to starve to death. But stay tuned. Presumably this is because they have "useful" lives. Their brains are functioning well, and they contribute to society. Terri Schiavo's brain is not functioning well. It's hardly functioning at all. But it's functioning at some level, and I'm more inclined to trust her parents in terms of what that functionality actually means because they are the ones (other than Terri) who have the most to lose in this situation. I trust them. Terri is their daughter.

And so what this comes down to is a "quality of life" discussion. And the U.S. courts have deemed that the quality of Terri Schiavo's life is not worth maintaining. God help us when we start going down this path because there is absolutely no reason, philosophically, once life is evaluated on purely utilitarian terms, why Alzheimer's patients should not be starved to death or why the severely mentally ill should not be starved to death. They're drains on society. They contribute nothing yet they just keep breathing and breathing, consuming food and water and taking up hospital beds, sapping the savings of their families, even those who haven't won $1,000,000 in lawsuits.

We are foolish if we see the dots and yet fail to connect them. This is where we are headed. And I believe that everything within the Judeo-Christian tradition, including, presumably, our law system, ought to be profoundly opposed to such thinking. It is madness. Hitler executed the mentally ill in Nazi Germany, but at least we had the sense and decency at the time to recognize him as a monster. Now we are presumably much more enlightened, and we have replaced the intrinsic value of human life, created in the image of God, with arbitrary decisions that directly oppose parents who want to keep their children alive. And we do it legally. God help us.

Andy Whitman said...

Fred, you’re raising the big issues in this debate. And they are not easy to resolve. Annie posted a link to an article that does a great job of summarizing the ethical issues from a Christian standpoint. To that article I would only add the following:

 Medical science now offers the means to prolong life well past the point that it would be prolonged if left to “natural” means. And that’s happened in Terri Schiavo’s case. Obviously, if “nature” were to take its course, people who can’t swallow would die for lack of food and water. But that’s a double-edged sword. Every night at 10:00 I stick a needle in my leg, which is attached to a syringe which contains insulin, which helps control my diabetes. Without such “unnatural” means I would die. So the question then becomes: which “unnatural” medical measures are warranted, and which are not? My answer: they’re all warranted. People die. It happens, and it happens inevitably. But it is the role of the medical profession to save life, not to take it. And it is the role of our legal system to protect life, not to take it. I will guarantee you that if this tragic situation had not occurred, Terri Schiavo would have died at some point, just as we all will die. But she would not have died like this. We have allowed the medical and legal worlds to play God in this case.

 Living wills have a purpose, and I am not opposed to them. I think it’s entirely appropriate for people to indicate that, if they are dying, their lives are not to be prolonged by extraordinary medical means. But there are two keys points in Terri Schiavo’s case: 1) she was not dying, and 2) food and water are not extraordinary medical measures. They are basic necessities of survival.

Frankly, I have big problems with the term “persistent vegetative state,” and it certainly doesn’t apply in Terri Schiavo’s case. It’s a dehumanizing term, and although the media is fond of it, I cordially hate it. In any case, vegetables don’t respond to family members, laugh at jokes, and communicate in words. Terri Schiavo does all of these things.

Here is Pope John Paul II on this issue, from an encyclical issued last year: "A man, even if seriously sick or prevented in the exercise of [his or her] higher functions, is and will be always a man ... [he] will never become a 'vegetable' or an 'animal.' The intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being does not change depending on their circumstance. Providing food and water to such patients is a natural thing to do and morally obligatory, not an optional extraordinary measure. In particular, I want to emphasize that the administration of water and food . . . always represents a natural means of preservation of life, not a medical treatment."

The teachings of the Catholic Church -- The Church that Michael Schiavo claims to follow -- are clear and unequivocal in this matter. Obviously I’m not a Catholic, but I believe the Pope’s position is consistent with what has been articulated by Christian thinkers for 2,000 years. There’s nothing new here from a Christian standpoint. What is new is the U.S. legal system’s novel interpretation of what constitutes life and what constitutes extraordinary medical measures.

 There are thousands who, like Terri Schiavo, must rely on feeding tubes to receive the nourishment needed to sustain life. No one, at least at this point, is suggesting that their feeding tubes be removed and that they be allowed to starve to death. But stay tuned. Presumably this is because they have "useful" lives. Their brains are functioning well, and they contribute to society. Terri Schiavo's brain is not functioning well. It's hardly functioning at all. But it's functioning at some level, and I'm more inclined to trust her parents in terms of what that functionality actually means because they are the ones (other than Terri) who have the most to lose in this situation. I trust them. Terri is their daughter.

And so what this comes down to is a "quality of life" discussion. And the U.S. courts have deemed that the quality of Terri Schiavo's life is not worth maintaining. God help us when we start going down this path because there is absolutely no reason, philosophically, once life is evaluated on purely utilitarian terms, why Alzheimer's patients should not be starved to death or why the severely mentally ill should not be starved to death. They're drains on society. They contribute nothing yet they just keep breathing and breathing, consuming food and water and taking up hospital beds, sapping the savings of their families, even those who haven't won $1,000,000 in lawsuits.

We are foolish if we see the dots and yet fail to connect them. This is where we are headed. And I believe that everything within the Judeo-Christian tradition, including, presumably, our law system, ought to be profoundly opposed to such thinking. It is madness. Hitler executed the mentally ill in Nazi Germany, but at least we had the sense and decency at the time to recognize him as a monster. Now we are presumably much more enlightened, and we have replaced the intrinsic value of human life, created in the image of God, with arbitrary decisions that directly oppose parents who want to keep their children alive. And we do it legally. God help us.

Jeff Cannell said...

I think Christ's parable of the lost sheep demonstrates God's particular concern for individuals amidst a sea of people and brokeness. Should we be concerned about the two billion- yes- but that does not meen ignoring Terri.

Also- Quality of life is so nebulous, so is productivity. If we allow ourselves to go their, than what about people who are miserable and completely non productive due to depression? I have had some seasons of life where I have been so weighed down by depression that I have not accomplished a thing. So is Quality of life about mental health? What about intelligence. If someone is severely retarded do they have a lower quality of life. I met a man named Pete whose downs syndrome does not preven him from being mentally healthy than most intellectuals I know. Besides- Who get's to pick the IQ #. Is quality of life based on physical health?

Let's not go their-

I long for the days when the Church was renowned for caring for the sick vs. dividing over what to do with the sick.

And I am completely pissed at the notiion that this might be a political issue. Screw politics- this is human life. I don;t give a damn who you vote for- It's all a lesser of evils issue anyway.

Andy- YOur commentary on this issue resonates with me deeply precisely because you are anything but a right-wing shill. In discussing a host of social issues with you, I have always been invigorated by the apparent fear and trembling you exibit when apporaching integrating your faith with your day-to-day world view.

For many years Iraq suffered under an oppressive dictatorship. But I believe America suffers under an oppresive democracy. The human heart can be ugly on and individual and corporate bases. So when are we going to be invaded to enact a "regime change" Are we collectively any different than Sadaam was idividually?

So we pray-

YOUR KINGDOM COME YOUR WILL BE DONE ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN

Jeff Cannell said...

I think Christ's parable of the lost sheep demonstrates God's particular concern for individuals amidst a sea of people and brokeness. Should we be concerned about the two billion- yes- but that does not meen ignoring Terri.

Also- Quality of life is so nebulous, so is productivity. If we allow ourselves to go their, than what about people who are miserable and completely non productive due to depression? I have had some seasons of life where I have been so weighed down by depression that I have not accomplished a thing. So is Quality of life about mental health? What about intelligence. If someone is severely retarded do they have a lower quality of life. I met a man named Pete whose downs syndrome does not preven him from being mentally healthy than most intellectuals I know. Besides- Who get's to pick the IQ #. Is quality of life based on physical health?

Let's not go their-

I long for the days when the Church was renowned for caring for the sick vs. dividing over what to do with the sick.

And I am completely pissed at the notiion that this might be a political issue. Screw politics- this is human life. I don;t give a damn who you vote for- It's all a lesser of evils issue anyway.

Andy- YOur commentary on this issue resonates with me deeply precisely because you are anything but a right-wing shill. In discussing a host of social issues with you, I have always been invigorated by the apparent fear and trembling you exibit when apporaching integrating your faith with your day-to-day world view.

For many years Iraq suffered under an oppressive dictatorship. But I believe America suffers under an oppresive democracy. The human heart can be ugly on and individual and corporate bases. So when are we going to be invaded to enact a "regime change" Are we collectively any different than Sadaam was idividually?

So we pray-

YOUR KINGDOM COME YOUR WILL BE DONE ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN