At 5 p.m. (Eastern) Terry Schiavo’s stay of “execution” expires, and all eyes are on Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer as he hears arguments today from Ms. Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, that their son-in-law, Michael Schiavo, is not fit to be his wife’s guardian.
In the March issue of Touchstone (shipping to subscribers today and available on newsstands next week), William Luse takes a South Florida community college class through the difficult (and largely unexamined) questions posed by Terry Schiavo in his essay, Let Live or Make Die?: Terri Schiavo, Christopher Reeve & the Right Not to Be Killed:
Not long after a Florida judge granted Michael Schiavo permission to have the feeding tube sustaining his wife, Terri, removed, I went round the room of a night class that I teach trying to find out who among the students had found a topic for their research paper. One young lady had chosen euthanasia. Was she for it or against it? Against it. The passive form, the active, or both? Umm, she hadn’t read about that yet.
It’s remarkable how little they know about subjects on which their opinions are vehement. I gave her a couple of examples to illustrate the difference between active and passive, then asked, out of sheer curiosity, if she or any of the others had heard of the Terri Schiavo case. None had. This struck me as odd, I said, since it was happening right down the road in St. Pete. Oh yes! A couple of them had heard of it, but were not familiar with the details. So I laid those details out.
“They’re going to starve her to death,” said the euthanasia girl, Jennifer, which shows that you need not be well read to have an unerring nose for the truth. And they seemed genuinely aghast when I told them it was written into Florida law that nutrition and hydration were to be considered “extraordinary” and unnatural means of prolonging life.
I suggested to Jennifer that she might want to look up the story of Nancy Cruzan to see how a similar case had played out, and that of Karen Ann Quinlan to see how wrong a medical certainty can be. Her appetite seemed whetted, but you never know. In the end, it’s a lot of work they’d rather not have to do.
In another class afflicted with the same assignment, I repeated the process. When I got to a girl in the back, she too had chosen euthanasia. For or against? “For,” she said emphatically, “active euthanasia.” She had done some reading, so I went straight to the issue, and asked if she was familiar with the Schiavo case. Not real familiar, she admitted, but she’d heard of it. Once again I explained the circumstances, and then asked (her name was Sarah, I think), “So . . . should they kill her?”
Believe it or not, this phrasing, this mere statement of fact, shocks. It shocks my students because they’re not thinking in terms of killing, but of “letting her go,” of doing some mercy. Sarah’s eyes widened a little.
“Is she in the process of dying?” she asked. She had done some reading.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “She appears to be in the process of living, with the help of a feeding tube.” When I added that certain therapists were of the opinion that she could learn to take food from a spoon (a fact I consider irrelevant), but that the judge had denied them the opportunity to teach her, in his apparent determination that the tube be pulled sometime in October, her eyes began darting about, looking for another way.
“But if removing the tube would stop her suffering . . .”
“She’s not suffering,” I said, “as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen anyone suffer less,” adding that, by the term most beloved of those who would speed her on her way—that she existed in a permanent “vegetative state”—her capacity for suffering was far less than ours.
I let her indecision become lost in the noise of remarks offered by others (“Pull the plug—she’s costing too much” was typical), and Sarah seemed glad of the reprieve. I think (and I’m guessing again, but it’s well-educated) she still wanted Mrs. Schiavo “let go,” but would have to work on another way to justify calling it that.
For more of the Luse essay, click here.