Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, March 28, 2005

What This is Really All About

In joining the recent feeding frenzy, every pundit discernibly to the left of "Reverend" Fred Phelps -- and that includes not just the blow-dried bloviators of the corporate media but independent Internet pals such as Tectonic Josh Marshall and recovering economist Duncan Black -- has felt compelled to cover butt by going on about horribly difficult and excruciatingly complex is the morality of end of life, and how respectfully we regard the sincere and compassionate motives of the protestors in Florida and most of the members of Congress who voted for the special legislation yadda yadda yadda but rule of law yadda yadda yadda private matter political grandstanding yadda yadda yadda.

Actually no. Only a tiny minority of people actually believe that society is morally obligated to use elaborate technology to preserve the biological functioning of people who lack conscious awareness and have no hope of recovering it. This group of bizarre deviants happens to include the morally vegetative Pope and the megalomaniacal Randall Terry, among other exotic species, but as a voting bloc, it trails fervent believers in alien abduction.

The Terri Schiavo controversy was not about moral principles, but about reality -- plain old fashioned facts. Her parents claimed that she was not, in fact, in a persistent vegetative state, that she responded to them, and had hope of recovery if she were to receive (unspecified) therapy. Her husband believed otherwise. The courts adjudicated this issue by referring, not to ethical debate, but to physicians who convinced judges, on at least 19 occasions, that Terri was not aware, was not responsive to her surroundings, and could not recover. The physician witnesses supplied by her parents were quacks who no-one could take seriously, whose mystical beliefs were irrefutably contradicted by radiological evidence that Terri's cerebral cortex had disentegrated.

Also at issue was what Terri's personal wishes had been about what should be done if she were to end up in such a state. Again, although her parents claimed she would have wanted to be kept "alive," the courts determined, based on a factual record, that at the time they said she expressed those wishes she was 11 or 12 years old; and that as an adult, she had said otherwise.

Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, in arguing for the Schindlers' case, did not refer to moral principles but to their conclusions about reality. Frist notoriously diagnosed her condition by looking at the edited videotape supplied by the parents, not by reference to the Bible. The Schindlers' latest appeals were not based on ethical arguments, but on their claim that certain noises Terri had emitted -- specifically "mah wah" -- meant, according to their Star Trek Universal Translator -- "I want to live."

There is actually little or no fundamental debate in this country about the ethics of terminating life support for people who lack functioning cerebral cortexes. Although most people, I would venture, don't really know what a cerebral cortex is or anything about how the architecture of the brain is related to the specific human faculties, they get the basic idea of the difference between vegetative functions and human consciousness.

The reason there was a controversy in this case that largely fractured along religious lines is that many in the religious right believe that others -- liberal believers and non-believers -- are morally depraved, and therefore capable of starving to death a conscious human being who had expressed a desire to live. They therefore accepted a false version of reality.

The protesters who attempted to enter the hospice in order to bring Terri food and water obviously did not know that Terri was incapable of swallowing and that the feeding tube was surgically implanted in her stomach through her abdominal wall. No doubt they were also swayed by the video, supplied by her parents and played in an endless loop on television, in which Terri's mother places her eyeballs in the path of Terri's vacant gaze and so simulates eye contact. The failure of the corporate media to ever get around to explaining the facts of the case -- and I acknowledge a few exceptions, about which more later -- allowed this travesty to take place. I have promised to flame the media, and I will keep my promise. But today's subject is truth.

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