The issue of euthanasia has once more been brought to the forefront of public awareness by the case of Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman who recently died after her husband won a long court battle to have her feeding tube removed. Terry had suffered a collapse with subsequent loss of oxygen to the brain and had spent fifteen years in a severely damaged condition, with limited cognitive function and little hope of improvement.
Although the U.S. media focused on this one family's private tragedy, the case was hardly unique. Even as President Bush and other prominent politicians were suddenly discovering a "Culture of Life", another tragedy was unfolding almost unnoticed in Texas. In that state, the baby of Ms. Wanda Hudson was being pulled off life support under a law giving hospital administrators authority to over-rule family wishes. The law was a measure pushed by then governor Bush as a cost-saving measure.
And yet, if one made the effort to look past the layers of hypocrisy and hype, the actual human story, and the precedent set, were truly frightening. The media routinely described Mrs. Schiavo as being in a "persistent vegetative state," but what does this mean, if anything? The person so labeled was capable of a range of facial expressions, vocalizations and movements. She was not in any sense brain-dead, she was rather severely brain-damaged.
The decision to discontinue her feeding was presented as a "right to die" case. But this was as far as can be imagined from the text-book example of a terminally ill person kept alive by extraordinary means. This was rather, a severely handicapped individual being denied the basic care necessary for maintenance of life. The implications for all mentally handicapped people are grave. A legal guardian, backed up by the courts, can now make life-or-death decisions based on what is called "quality of life." If someone, unable to speak for themselves, is judged from the outside to have insufficient quality of life, that life can be terminated.
If the politicians on the American right were guilty of hypocritical posturing, those of the left were mostly notable by their studied absence. (The Rev. Jesse Jackson was an honourable exception, one of the few public figures on the Democratic side who spoke up for Terry Schiavo) This is disheartening because one, perhaps naively, hopes that liberals will speak up for the weak, the voiceless and powerless. And who is more disenfranchised than someone like Terry Schiavo?
The sad truth is that for all the noise about a Culture of Life, it is very hard to find any group in public life consistently in favour of protecting life. Even if we limit our discussion to human life (although for myself, as a Buddhist, I can't find any strong reason to do so) we see, as rule, the conservative side (at least in America) favouring war as a means of doing international relations, and the death penalty as a means of domestic governance. The liberals may oppose these forms of killing, but are very protective of others, such as abortion and euthanasia. A consistent culture of life would oppose all these forms of violence equally.
A true culture of life would have to radically address all our methods of dealing with problems. A culture of violence seeks to eradicate problems by annihilating them. Whether it is a foreign nation that poses a hypothetical threat, an inconvenient fetus or a brain-damaged woman who needs constant care, the non-violent solution requires more commitment, more compassion and more participation by the whole community. The violent solution is more final, and seemingly easier and cheaper. It certainly requires less thought. But in the end, the easy taking of life is a brutal act, and condoning it brutalizes us all.
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