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Have we learned anything from Terri Schiavo's death?
April 17, 2006
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary
March 31 marked the one-year anniversary of Terri Schiavo's death by starvation. All too quickly, Terri's name and cause disappeared from the national awareness as our attention-deficit culture moved on to other issues and other concerns.
Just in time for the anniversary of her death, publishers have released books written by Terri's former husband, Michael Schiavo, and her parents — offering competing visions of Terri's life and the meaning of her death. Given the symbolic nature of this sad anniversary, another flurry of news stories, cable news programs and media commentaries are likely to appear. But has America learned anything about the sanctity of human life over the past 12 months?
There are signs that Americans may actually be resigning themselves to the inevitability of euthanasia and the culture of death in which we live. In the aftermath of Terri Schiavo's death, a wave of commentary appeared, offering the suggestion that what Americans should have learned from the controversy was that personal autonomy should triumph over all other moral concerns and priorities. Beyond this, others have been quick to point accusing fingers at political figures, including George W. Bush, who attempted to intervene on behalf of Terri's life.
All this suggests that most people address this controversy with considerable confusion. When it comes to matters of life and death, we moderns face quandaries and questions unimaginable in previous generations. Regrettably, we are now attempting to answer those questions while the very worldview that would offer hope and moral assistance is being undermined and rejected.
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, argues that "a crucial line divides those who affirm and those who deny that the life of each human being possesses inherent and equal worth and dignity, irrespective not only of race, ethnicity, age, and sex (as everyone agrees), but stage of development, mental or physical infirmity, and condition of dependency."
George addressed these issues as a panelist at an event sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Federalist Society, and the Constitution Project. An edited form of his comments is published as "Terminal Logic," in the March 2006 edition of "Touchstone."
As George rightly insists, those who attempt to distinguish between "mere biological human life" and a "person," are on the wrong side of this divide. Most often, those who make this distinction are attempting to suggest that persons possess rights while those who are merely forms of "biological human life" do not.
George explains that those who insist on the distinction between biological life and persons will "insist the question is not, when does the life of a human being begin or end? but, When does a human being qualify or cease to qualify as a person, and therefore a creature with a serious right to life? Those they regard as non-persons do not possess such a right, though killing them may be wrong for some reason other than that killing them denies the inherent dignity of persons."
Every moral argument is based upon some preconditions and presuppositions. The argument that human beings are to be divided between those who are merely biologically alive and those who possess sufficient qualities to be considered persons is based upon a worldview that privileges human autonomy over other moral goods. As George explains, "The right of autonomy immunizes individual choice in matters having to do with how one leads one's own life against interference by others, including the state, especially when the choices do not directly damage the interests or violate the rights of others."
Of course, the issue of euthanasia brings the autonomy question into clear focus. Those arguing for a right to a "good death" do so on the grounds that a human person has the right to end his or her life as he or she may please. Once again, autonomy trumps all other moral concerns and claims.
The claim for removing Schiavo's feeding tube and hydration was made on the basis of her own personal autonomy. Of course, there was no record that she had indicated any wish to exercise her autonomy in this way, but the court received as sufficient her husband's claim that she had done so in a recognizably minimal way.
Much of the debate over Schiavo had to do with the contested question of whether she had actually made any such statement. This misses the more fundamental point — that such a statement would be immoral and unjustifiable even if made.
Bad ideas often work their way out of a culture — but at great cost and over great time. The sad legacy of the twentieth century demonstrates that truly tragic, pernicious, and deadly ideas and ideologies can take millions upon millions of victims. We can only hope that Americans will regain some moral sense and the consciousness of what was lost when Terri Schiavo became yet another victim of the Culture of Death. When personal autonomy triumphs over all other moral claims, this kind of tragedy becomes inevitable. A year after Schiavo's death, have we learned anything at all?