Death Marks an Anniversary—Have We Learned Anything?

Today, March 31, 2006, marks 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–each offering competing visions of Terri’s life and the meaning of Terri’s 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 twelve months?

There are signs that Americans may actually be resigning themselves to the inevitability of euthanasia and the Culture of Death. 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.”

Professor 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.

Professor George’s clarification of these issues is urgently important and serves as a basic corrective to so much of the nonsense and confusion that characterizes the contemporary debate over human personhood, euthanasia, and related questions. If human beings are divided between those who are presumably persons and those who are not, this raises the whole question of how we are to understand “pre-personal” and “post-personal” human lives.

As Professor George explains, those who insist on the distinction between biological life and persons will “insist the question is not, When does the life of 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 as persons is based upon a worldview that privileges human autonomy over other moral goods. As Professor 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.”

The triumph of personal autonomy over other moral goods has allowed abortion advocates to argue that a woman’s supposed right of personal autonomy trumps any claim that an unborn baby has an inherent right to life. After all, according to this logic, the woman is herself a person while the unborn baby is something less, perhaps a “pre-person” in some stage of development. When advocates and opponents of abortion argue with each other, they often talk past one another, with pro-life advocates often missing the fact that those arguing for abortion rights begin with the presupposition that the woman’s “right to choose” must triumph over all other concerns and claims, regardless of the circumstances.

In more recent years, debates over the use and destruction of human embryos in biomedical research has occasioned similar arguments. Those who argue for the validity of using and destroying human embryos in medical experiments or treatments argue that embryos are, at best, “pre-persons” who simply have no claim upon the moral equation. The claim of autonomy is assigned to those who would donate such embryos or make the moral decision to destroy those same embryos in the course of medical experimentation that is most often delivered with the promise that it will lead to medical treatments for “real” persons.

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.

Professor George sets the record straight: “Now, those who oppose abortion, infanticide, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and so forth, as I do, oppose them both because we reject the idea that there are or can be pre-personal or post-personal human beings, or human non-persons of any description, and because we do not accept the sweeping view of the value of autonomy. We affirm a doctrine of inherent and equal dignity that affirms all living human beings as persons, excludes the direct killing human beings, and demands respect for every individual’s right to life. Most of us also believe that the law should honor the principle of the sanctity of human life and not privilege the belief in autonomy over it.”

In one sense, the argument over these questions comes down to a hierarchy of moral goods and claims. The slide into abortion, euthanasia, embryo research, and worse is directly traceable to the rise of autonomy as the supreme moral good in the view of many persons. Of course, this is a fairly new development in human thinking, but it is perfectly fitted for our times–telling Americans that their personal autonomy is the most important moral claim we can conceive.

Terri Schiavo died because her husband sought and obtained a court order that feeding and hydration should be denied to her. Mrs. Schiavo had suffered a calamitous physical injury that had clearly affected her brain and powers of cognition. Still, this injury did not kill her and she did not die as a direct result of the injury. She died simply because she was starved and dehydrated until she died–all this at the order of successive courts and at the instigation of her husband.

The claim for removing her feeding tube and hydration was made on the basis of her own personal autonomy. Of course, there was no record that Terri Schiavo 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 Terri 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.

In 1992, a group of ethicists known as the Ramsey Colloquium adopted a statement entitled “Always to Care, Never to Kill.” That statement offers wisdom that is urgently needed in our reconsideration of the Terri Schiavo controversy one year later:

“Life, however, is not simply a ‘good’ that we possess. We are living beings. Our life is our person. To treat our life as a ‘thing’ that we can authorize another to terminate is profoundly dehumanizing. Euthanasia, even when requested by the competent, can never be a humanitarian act, for it attacks the distinctiveness and limitations of being human. Persons–ourselves and others–are not things to be discarded when they are no longer deemed useful.”

Further: “We can give our life for another, but we cannot give ultimate authority over our life to another. The painfully learned moral wisdom of our heritage is that persons cannot ‘own’ persons. The decision for euthanasia is not an exercise of human freedom but the abandonment of human freedom. To attempt to turn one’s life into an object that is at the final disposition of another is to become less than human, while it places the other in a position of being more than human–a lord of life and death, a possessor of the personhood of others.”

As Professor George argues, in agreement with the Ramsey Colloquium: “We are to maintain solidarity with those in disabled conditions, seeking to heal their afflictions when we can and making every effort to relieve their suffering and discomfort. At the same time, we should discourage anyone tempted to regard his life as valueless or merely burdensome to himself or others from thinking this and from committing suicide. We cannot encourage or assist suicidal choices and assisted suicide or euthanasia.”

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 Terri Schiavo’s death, have we learned anything at all?