Monday, March 28, 2005

My One and Only Comment on the Schiavo Case

Back in the late months of 1993, I discovered Usenet and a penchant for online debate. Like many people, I find debating to be invigorating and useful. I have previously compared debate to a kind of crucible that we can use to test our beliefs against the beliefs of others with the hope that the crucible will allow us to retain good beliefs while rejecting bad beliefs.

I will speak with no false modesty: I became a good debater. I learned, early on, that the best way to do well in a debate was to restrict myself to debating those subjects where I had a good understanding of the topic.

It seems like an obvious maxim but it’s clear that it’s one that many people don’t get. Too often, people feel compelled to weigh in on topics which they clearly don’t understand. It wouldn’t be so bad if such people limited themselves to questions and an effort to enhance their understanding but, typically, they tried to be pundits and ended up being transparently ignorant. Such people are pathetically easy to best in a debate (even when they obstinately refuse to concede a point). They are also uninteresting to debate for this very reason. It was a proliferation of such pseudo-pundits that ultimately killed off most of my desire to engage in online debates. The quality of the argument was so low that I wasn’t getting the benefit of the crucible.

Be that as it may, as I’ve transitioned from debate to essay writing, I’ve kept this basic principle in mind: talk about what I know, qualify what I don’t, and leave the rest to the experts.

Everyone seems to have a passionate opinion about the Terry Schiavo case. Like most of you, I am aware that Terry Schiavo fell into a coma fifteen years ago. I know that her husband petitioned the courts to have her feeding tube removed. I know that her parents opposed the petition. I know that the courts determined that Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state. I know that various doctors have supported and opposed this conclusion. I am aware that the case has been appealed up through the courts and that the courts have continued to side with the removal of the feeding tube. I know that both the Florida legislature and the US Congress have weighed in on the issue and have, for the most part, sided with the family. I know that, as of this writing, the tube has been removed and that Ms. Schiavo, pending any successful attempts to have her feeding tube reinserted, will soon die. I am aware that various allegations have been made concerning the motives of her husband as well as the motives of her family. I am aware that this issue has become enmeshed with the larger issue of the right to life and the right to die campaigns and that this has been a subject of very emotional controversy.

This is what I know.

I do not know whether or not Ms. Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state or a state of “minimal consciousness”. I do not know if her husband is acting on behalf of her interests or on behalf of his own. I have seen a CAT scan that would seem to indicate that her frontal lobe has liquefied. I do not have the expertise to interpret the scan. I have seen video of Ms. Schiavo apparently responding to various stimuli. I do not have the expertise to know whether or not these reactions indicate genuine consciousness or instinctual reflexes. I have read opinions on both sides from a variety of neurologists and do not have the expertise to know which opinion is more informed. I do not know whether or not Ms. Schiavo would have wanted to live under these circumstances.

Ultimately, I don’t know a lot about this case.

The curious thing is that a whole lot of people who aren’t doctors, or members of her family, and who have not had any direct involvement in the court proceedings have, never the less, expressed some very confident opinions regarding this case, one way or the other. Some of these opinions are nearly psychic, claiming to express knowledge of the state of Ms. Schiavo’s personal beliefs in the matter. Indeed, one of the more remarkable (and remarkably stupid) opinions I’ve seen has been that of so-called psychic John Edwards, who, until recently, had a show where he claimed the ability to talk to the dead (and, apparently, the comatose).

I am doubtful that many of the people who have firm convictions regarding this case have, in fact, a firm foundation for those convictions. My own conviction is that this is a sad, sad matter but one that is, ultimately, none of my business. I didn’t know Terry. I wasn’t there when she supposedly expressed a wish not to live in such a state. I wasn’t there when she was being diagnosed (nor would I have known how to evaluate the diagnosis). I was not there when the case made it through the courts. I do not, in truth, know whether the courts have made the right choice. Given this, how can I possibly decide whether or not this person should have her feeding tube removed? I don’t have the means to know whether this is an act of mercy or an act of cruelty.

All I know is that one of the reasons that we have courts, as well as a system of appeals, is that someone has to have the unhappy duty of making such decisions. I do not believe that the courts are infallible. It is plausible that something morally wrong is being done. It is just as plausible that failing to do this would be just as wrong. I have no choice but to accept the verdict of the courts and to hope that they have done the right thing.

The alternative would be to pretend to an expertise that neither I, nor the majority of people, have.

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