Commentary on Terry Schiavo tragedy: Love, Morality, Compassion, Family, Marriage, Parenthood,
Law and Common Sense.
It's hard to judge harshly the parents of Terry Schiavo even though their emotional nightmare
apparently makes it easy for them to harshly judge others. It's hard to judge harshly the
husband of Terry Schiavo for seeking to honor what he describes, and what the courts have found by clear
and convincing evidence,* as having been the wishes of his
wife when she possessed the capacity for cognitive thought: To not have her body perpetuated
in a vegetative state without any realistic hope of every recovering any meaningful capacity for
cognitive thought. This tragedy is filled with decent people impugning the motives of other
decent people. (*This is an evidentiary burden of proof
far higher than the "preponderance of the evidence" burden in most civil cases.)
One of the functions of the law is to temper emotions with rationality. Another is to serve as
the societal mechanism for resolving conflicts that are emotionally irreconcilable, but we know that
no justice system can do so perfectly. A price that all of us must be willing to pay for a
fair justice system is that there may come a time when such fair, but imperfect, system will deliver
imperfect justice to us. Absent such commitment, a fair system of justice cannot endure.
Thus, those of us who support a death penalty must also accept the risk that such imperfect system
could subject us to the ultimate penalty despite our being innocent.
Those of us who want the courts to respect the concept of a "living will" (or "clear
and convincing evidence" sufficient to establish its equivalent) must be willing to accept a
final adjudication (i.e., a trial-court decision ultimately upheld on appeal) finding such
intent and ordering caregivers and guardians to respect it. Otherwise, we all lose our liberty
to express such intent as a means to protect ourselves from the good, but misguided, intentions of
others to perpetuate our existence in a medically hopeless state in manner that violates our own
As a husband, my sympathy is with a husband seeking to honor what the courts have found to have been
the desires of his wife that her existence not be perpetuated by artificial means without any
realistic hope of ever regaining any meaningful cognitive capacity. As a parent, my sympathy
is with the parents whose love and hopes for their daughter are so strong that they blind them to
medical reality. Most parents would stubbornly do everything in their power to
combat a decision by the system of justice when they sincerely perceive it as having
disregarded, mistreated or violated their child's best interests. Parents as stubborn as Terry
Schiavo's parents don't deserve to be demonized except for their apparent willingness to
demonize the husband notwithstanding the fact that no court has found evidence to support their
accusations against him.
Perhaps we cannot realistically expect the husband or the parents to respect their irreconcilable
differences. What we should be able to expect, however, is that other people support
the legal system's final adjudication of this issue. To do otherwise would be to jeopardize
everyone's liberty to take steps to require government to respect one's desires not to be
perpetuated in a medically hopeless state without any realistic prospect of ever regaining any
meaningful capacity for cognitive thought. Many, if not most, of those who most ardently
support the current legislative efforts to thwart the finality of the judiciary's adjudication of
these issues in the Schiavo case support the death penalty (which I support) despite their knowledge
that doing so creates an inherent risk that cannot be reduced to zero that the system will
mistakenly put an innocent person to death. Yet in the Schiavo case, they seem determined to
demand a level of perfection, the effect of which would be to jeopardize everyone's right to expect
the government to respect the kinds of wishes exemplified by "living wills."
They also seem determined to handle the matter in a way that potentially jeopardizes marriage by
creating potential avenues for parents to intervene in inter-spousal decisions.
One could argue that the husband's understanding that Terry Schiavo effectively "died"
nearly a decade ago and that the portions of her brain necessary for cognitive functions have
deteriorated into mere spinal fluid ought to motivate him out of sheer sympathy for her parents to
allow them to accept custody of her body to enable their caring for it to minimize the emotional and
psychological injuries her condition has inflicted upon them. By virtue of her already being
virtually dead, it's difficult to believe her brain retains the capacity to experience
"suffering." Perhaps his giving them custody of her body would have been the humane
thing to do, but their demonization of him probably poisoned whatever well of sympathy he surely
must have had for them.
As a principled opponent of most instances of "legislating from the bench," I'm also
opposed to "adjudicating from the legislature"-- especially when such legislative attempt
at adjudication imperils, rather than supports, the capacity of the judiciary to respect a
fundamental liberty. In this case, Bush is wrong for failing to recognize that the
"compassionate" thing to do in this case would be to respect what the courts found by
"clear and convincing evidence" to have been the wishes of Terry Schiavo when she
possessed the cognitive capacity to formulate, and express, them. Despite my sympathy
for the emotional agony of Terry Schiavo's parents, I hope the efforts of those supporting the
relief they're seeking will ultimately become a footnote, rather than a precedent, in
Wrenn, Editor at PoliSat.Com.
21, 2005 #01 Daily Update at PoliSat.Com,
where satire is always
commentary, but commentary
isn't always satire.
In Re Terry Schiavo.
link to this Daily Update: http://polisat.com/du2005/du0503-21--31.htm#20050321-01.
30-day news-link: http://polisat.com/DailyPoliticalSatire-Commentary/du20y05m03d21-01.htm
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