A Woman in the Next Room Has Died By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Friday April 01, 2005

In this small, sad space where the overwhelming emotions seem to have temporarily waned with the death of Terri Schiavo, and before we have forgotten this issue entirely and moved onto other things, it seems appropriate to take some time to talk calmly and quietly about the issues that have been raised. This is an issue which ought to rise above partisan politics. 

Unfortunately, far too many of my liberal-or-progressive friends both began and ended their Schiavo discussions with a denunciation of what they call the hypocrisy of Mr. Bush and his allies on the conservative Christian right. It is certainly an easy target, going after a president who urges us to “err on the side of life” while in the midst of conducting a war of choice that has cost thousands upon thousands of deaths. But while taking public delight at the misery of political enemies may be attractive, it misses the point that this is a thoughtful time that requires a more serious discussion. 

But it is also unfair to say, as conservative columnist David Brooks wrote last week in a New York Times op-ed piece, that “the socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral force.” Reacting to the position—advanced by many on the left—that Schiavo (through the assertions of her husband, since Schiavo can no longer speak for herself) should be allowed to decide her own fate rather than the medical community or the various branches of government, Brooks called that advocacy “morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste. … You end up exactly where many liberals ended up this week, trying to shift arguments away from morality and on to process.” 

The point Mr. Brooks misses, I believe, that if we as a common society were to make a decision on who is to live and who is to die on moral grounds, we would first have to decide on a common morality. And that, of course, is more difficult than some commentators would have us believe. 

One of the great liberating factors of the American experiment was the decision to divorce government from religious tests. Without such a division, both African-Americans and American women in general might still be living in second class subservience, since the conditions of both were declared unconstitutional by the courts at the same time it was argued by some religious believers that those conditions were sanctioned and encouraged by God. 

But the same thing make you laugh, make you cry, as they say back South. And so the division of church and state in America left Americans without a common moral denominator, remanding it to citizens to make the decision of what is right and what is wrong on our own, using our various religious beliefs as a personal guide, if we so choose, but eliminating religion as the ultimate authority. 

My conservative Christian friends argue that this was never actually intended by the Founding Folks, and the moral authority of God ought to be the ultimate standard by which the decisions of our government are judged. 

But even amongst Christians, agreement on even the simplest of God’s words seems difficult to come by. 

For me, for example, the dictum that “thou shalt not kill” always seemed plain enough. Never. Under any circumstances. It was, after all, the one backsliding act that kept the great Moses out of the Promised Land, if I read that part of the story right. 

But I have many friends—good, practicing Christians, all—who feel quite comfortable in the belief that God did not intend that ban to be applied to soldiers at war, or police officers shooting suspects, or hangmen at the gallows. Or that, while God’s condemnation of killing might have applied to the old covenant established at the time of Exodus, it was superceded by a new covenant that came with the birth and death of Jesus. And so to them, “thou shalt not kill” is a qualified commandment, appended by a “depending.” 

If Christians by themselves cannot agree on the meaning of what seems to be the clearest out of 10 simple laws passed down to the Jewish exiles at Mount Sinai, how can the great diversity of America religious and non-religious beliefs—atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Jews, wiccans, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Ifans, and more—find some sort of religious common ground on the complex issues raised by the impending death of Terri Schiavo? 

Assuming, for a moment, that Michael Schiavo and the courts are correct, and Terri Schiavo long ago expressed her will not to continue live in her present condition, it seems ghastly that the only recourse is to be starved and deprived of liquids until she dies of malnutrition. Even if she does not feel any pain from the procedure, as her doctors contend, we do in watching her waste away from day to day, regardless of which side of the issue on which we stand. But as a society, we have outlawed the alternatives. By law, her doctors can withdraw the feeding tubes from Ms. Schiavo that we all know will bring her to death, but the doctors themselves cannot legally inject an overdose of morphine or other drug that would hasten that death in a more humane manner. Neither can her husband nor any agent nor even Ms. Schiavo herself, were she able, which has always seemed to me to be the oddest of circumstances, since the ban against suicide is the one law impossible to punish if the perpetrator actually succeeds in the breaking it. Perhaps those laws need some more thought. 

Just as disturbing, as well, is the question raised by the Schiavo case of who makes the decisions of who is to live and who is to die when the individuals themselves are not in a position to speak on the matter. The legislature? The medical professionals? The parents? The spouse? In a nation of laws, it is the courts which often decide these fates, necessarily taking it out of the hands of the people we love and trust the most, putting it in the hands of strangers. If we do not wish those strangers to decide, how would we change the laws to make it so? 

We should not try to abandon our religious, or non-religious, or political or ideological beliefs in approaching these issues. That is how we interpret the world. But we also should accept the fact that others of equal but different moral views—whether those morals are derived from a religious foundation or flow from some other fount-might properly come to different conclusions. We might agree, for a starter, that it is reasonable to assume that Michael Schiavo and Robert and Mary Schindler have equal love for Terri Schiavo, but based upon that love, had an honest, understandable, and wrenching disagreement on how and if her life should have continued. It is a familiar tragedy often played out in other lives. If nothing else, that assumption might at least stop the shouting as we debate the life and death of Terri Schiavo, and what it means for the fate of the rest of us. Let us have some dignity about ourselves while we’re doing it, friends. A woman in the next room has died, after all.