Michael Totten

To Save or Not to Save

Almost everyone knows about the Terri Schiavo case by now, so I won’t get bogged down in the details. But here’s a quick summary for those who are out of the loop: She’s been in some sort of vegetative state for fifteen years, her husband has fought to take her off life-support, and her parents have fought to keep her on it. A Florida court recently ordered her feeding tube removed, and now the Republicans in the White House and Congress want the issue decided in federal courts. George W. Bush is even mucking around with his schedule in order to sign legislation as quickly as possible.
It’s easy to see both sides of this one. Peggy Noonan does the best job summing up the “conservative” side: “There is a passionate, highly motivated and sincere group of voters and activists who care deeply about whether Terri Schiavo is allowed to live. Their reasoning, ultimately, is this: Be on the side of life.”
“Be on the side of life.” It sounds right and feels good. “Pull the plug” sounds wrong and feels horrible. I truly hate to say this, but I think I’m just barely on the “pull the plug” side in this particular case. I’m not proudly or happily on that side. Nor am I completely on that side. If the details were slightly different I wouldn’t be on that side at all. Just thinking about it is painful, and it isn’t my problem.
In any case, it’s none of my business. I wouldn’t tell somebody else what I think they should do in a dilemma like this unless they asked me to do so. I can only say what I would probably do if the decision were mine. Still, when you really get down to it, I’m not 100 percent sure I could order another human being’s plug to be pulled. I had to euthanize two of the koi in my backyard pond last summer. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do under the circumstances I still felt like an evil despicable bastard for doing it. I was shocked by how guilty that made me feel. And they were just fish. They were beautiful fish, but they still were just fish.
The only reason I’m thinking about Terri Schiavo at all is because her story has become a media and political circus. An excruciating philosophical and moral conundrum, one for which there are no easy or even right answers, has been turned into yet another partisan “culture war” bitch-fest. It’s all so degrading and corrosive.
I’m not at all impressed with either the White House or Congress right now. This is so obviously not the federal government’s business that I’m embarrassed to even point it out. Whether Terri Schiavo lives or dies is of supreme maximum importance to her friends and family. It’s only important in a symbolic and voyeuristic way to anyone else – and that’s only because the media refuse to let go of it and political activists refuse to stay out of it.
George W. Bush isn’t intervening to save one person’s life. I really truly hate to say this, but it’s true: he has more important things that he needs to tend to. For him this is all about politics.
Here’s how the White House or Congress can score some genuine points with me: do something about people who are taken off life-support because their families ran out of money. (See Mark Kleiman for some details about that gruesome business.) Now there’s a real national problem. And doing something about it requires a lot more than grandstanding. Where’s the “right to life” crowd on that?