Pilot Editoral

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Murders and mercies

There are few issues that grab for the heart the way the right-to-die debate does. And when it has a face to go with the rhetoric, it becomes so easy to sympathize with both sides.

Doctors removed Terri Schiavo's feeding tube Friday despite a national and Congressional outcry, siding with the husband who says he wants her to die with dignity, and against the woman's parents, who say they want to preserve her life and their hopes.

This is where the years of debate come to a painful point.

It is very easy to support the right-to-die ideal. What point is there to prolonging life when the inhabitant of the body no longer wants it, or perhaps is no longer really able to live it?

Those cases happen everyday, sadly.

The heart or the breathing has stopped. The patient, if left untreated by medical science, would naturally die quickly. They may have even signed an order asking to be allowed to die in just such an event. It is neither suicide or murder to shut of the machines, if that is the will of the person and their loved ones. It seems almost a simple choice.

But in the case of Terry Schiavo, the simplicity of our convictions is sorely tested.

In order to allow her to pass away, we must starve her to death. It could take a week or two, and even in her vegetative state, one must presume it involves pain of some sort for her body.

If you want to talk cruelty, in the course of this case and its politics, her feeding tube has been twice removed, to be put back a few days later each time in the face of legal actions. What are we doing to this poor woman?

What are we to do? As hard as it is to determine the right thing in Schiavo's case, it is even more difficult when we imagine how this will be used as a precedent for years to come on many right-to-die cases - of varying circumstance.

Generally speaking, the right-to-die is a compelling argument. Why shouldn't people have the right to decide that they do not wish to be kept alive by artificial means when their mind or body have failed to the point of hopelessness, and when there is nothing to save them for but more pain?

We have the decency to grant a dignified, merciful and humane end for our pets, but not ourselves. Strange.

Yet we do not have any evidence of pain or terminal nature in Schiavo's condition. She is very much alive and reasonably strong. She breathes on her own. With tube feeding, she has survived for 15 years in this condition. That means that her death would tiptoe to the line toward physician-assisted death, which has to this point been considered criminal.

Doctors say she has no hope for cognitive improvement, yet how do we know for certain she cannot hear, feel a loving hand, or for that matter, feel hunger?

Schiavo does not need the power of speech to tell us a lesson from this painful case - it would be almost impossible to formulate a law governing life and death that would cover every case and save us from the pain of the choice.

With that said, there are many people in the Terri Schiavo case who should be ashamed of themselves. Their ulterior motives, political grandstanding, money-grubbing and baldfaced use of this woman's plight to further some cause of their choosing is truly disgusting.

We cannot argue with those who truly believe that she would choose to die, if she were able to choose. Their discussions of dignity and rights right true.

But we could not do it. We could not intentionally act to starve this woman to death with our hands, as much as we suspect it could be a humane thing to do.

And there is the central plight that is the reason this right-to-die issue will never, ever really be resolved. It will never be easy.

God help us, we don't have the heart.