Saturday, October 25, 2003

Florida Report: Is Terri a Person?

I arrived in St. Petersburg Wednesday afternoon with no problems. After picking up the rental car and checking in to my hotel, I got on the phone to Pete Vere and Msgr. Malanowski. Msgr. came out and over dinner, he brought me up to date on what was happening.

I have to say, Msgr. Malanowski is very impressive. He is zealous, energetic, and courageous. His courage was demonstrated on Tuesday night: He went in to visit Terri and give her Viaticum. When the husband-mandated "minder" (family members and Msgr. Malanowski aren't allowed to see Terri without one of Michael's representatives present) realized what he was about to do, she cried foul and told Msgr. he couldn't do that. He asked the police what would happen if he did it anyway. They replied that they would arrest him. His response was "so lock me up", or something to that effect. But then they added that they would physically prevent him from giving Terri communion. It was only the certitude that he would fail that dissuaded him, not the prospect of being arrested. Bob Schindler (Terri's father) told me that he saw a side of Msgr. that night that he'd never seen before, and told me how he felt "unworthy" of the friendship and support of such a good and holy priest. I know priests half his age (he's 81) who don't work half as hard as he does. My primary reason for being here is to help him out: to allow him to take a breather. On Wednesday, he hadn't slept 4 hours in the last two days. Well, for the past couple of nights he's been able to go home at a decent hour, and is finally getting some sleep. As you can see by the time code on this post, I'm the one burning the midnight oil now. But that's not a big deal for me, as I'm a night-owl by disposition.

Today was a very busy day: The Schindlers learned about the ACLU's announcement that they would come in the side of Terri's husband, to defend his right to kill her. Of course, that't not the way they phrase it. They use noble-sounding phrases like "right to die", or "death with dignity". Of course, Terri wasn't dying when they pulled the feeding tube, and I don't see what dignity there is in dying of starvation and dehydration, in a way we don't even use on our most heinous criminals. The Schindlers also hosted a news conference to respond to husband Michael's announcement Thursday that he would never give up his effort to see Terri dead. The Schindlers had three doctors, two nurses, and numerous family there to testify to what Terri's real condition is. I'll go into greater detail about that in a future post, probably later today. But in a nutshell, their testimony was:
(a) Terri is responsive to those around her, in distinctive ways (she responds to different people differently).
(b) All three doctors testified definitively and convincingly that Terri is NOT in a Persistent Vegetative State or coma. They all but begged the reporters present to stop reporting her as "brain dead" or PVS.
(c) Terri would almost certainly benefit from rehabilitative therapy, which therapy husband Michael has steadfastly denied for 10 years.


A lot has been happening in the last couple of days. I could write pages to try to cover it all. I'll go into more detail about specific issues in future posts, but for now I want to try to convey the understanding which, I think, lies at the heart of the Schindler's efforts to save Terri.

One of the things that struck me very quickly is how level-headed, reasonable, and calm the Schindlers are. That might seem a strange thing to say, but when I arrived I didn't know what to expect. I only had spoken to Bob on the phone up to that point, and he sounded exhausted. I was half-expecting to meet people rendered emotional wrecks by their week-long ordeal of watching their daughter dying. They've also been portrayed, by the husband and his attorneys, and by unsympathetic media, as everything from religious fanatics to pathetic simpletons.

But they weren't, and aren't. They're very normal, solid people. They've been represented as people in denial of their daughter's sad state, blinded by their emotional attachment to her. But that is simply not the case. They are quite realistic about Terri's condition: she is severely brain damaged, and will almost certainly never come close to substantial recovery. But they see that the person they know and love as Terri is still there. And they cannot understand why the fact that she won't recover amounts to grounds for ending her life.

Much of the argument about Terri and the withdrawal of food and water has focused on the issue of Terri's "recoverability". Those in favor of "letting Terri die" say that she won't recover, her situation is hopeless, so why prolong such a limited and "meaningless" life. Those trying to save Terri frequently argue to the effect that Terri could recover, that you can't definitely say that it is impossible that she could recover, and therefore her life is to be preserved. Now, I think that the latter position is vastly morally superior to the former. But I think the whole issue of Terri's recoverability is a red herring. To argue about that is to argue around the real issue.

People develop all sorts of conditions, varying in severity, from which they will never recover. Some of those conditions severely compromise a person's "quality of life". For example, a man who has advanced Congestive Heart Failure has such compromised cardiac efficiency that he won't be able to walk to the mailbox and back without stopping to catch his breath. This is without doubt a serious impairment of his quality of life. Furthermore, Congestive Heart Failure is a progressive and degenerative disease. It will only get worse, and ultimately it will kill the patient. By the criterion of recoverability, you could justify killing people once they're diagnosed with CHF, because they won't recover.

Another unrecoverable disorder is Down's Syndrome. People with Down's Syndrome won't "get better". The best you can hope for is to teach them enough skills so they can function in society, and many Down's patients will never even reach that point. But we don't (yet) kill the mentally retarded because they won't recover. Most of us still have sufficient vestigial humanity to recognize that killing of the retarded is inhuman and barbaric.

Why is that the case? Well, I believe it is because we recognize the humanity of the Down's sufferer. We recognize that, in spite of the limitations, this is a human person. And, contrary to a commenter on Amy Welborn's blog, personhood is not a "value judgment", which we (whoever "we" are) "choose to attribute to some objects and not others. " This attitude is not only monstrous, it is not even rationally coherent. Firstly, if it is a "value judgement", then who is empowered to define or mediate the values constitutive of it? What person is authorized to decide which values count and which don't? Or will these values be decided by some sort of societal consensus? If so, what percentage of agreement is necessary to grant personhood to a certain "object" or group of objects. If I decide that you aren't a person, on what basis could you refute me? If 60% of the population decides that Mexican illegal immigrants aren't persons, then can we kill them? And before you pooh-pooh such a scenario, let me remind you that in our own country, not too long ago, certain groups of people were commonly held to be "non-persons" by the majority of their neighbors. Furthermore, we only need to look at the slaughter that has occurred in the Balkans to see where a socially constucted idea of personhood leads you. It leads inevitably to the brutish, violent, striving for domination of one over the other. It leads directly to Auschwitz, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the plains of Ukraine in the 20's, and the Apartheid of South Africa.

No, personhood is inherent in the human being. To separate personhood from human identity is as disordered as separating eating from nutrition, or separating sex from... ohhh.... procreation. It is this way because God made human beings that way. And God made Terri Schiavo that way. Those who know and love her see her as a person not because they are deluded, but because they look beyond what she can or cannot do, to see who she is.

We are not very good at focusing on what things are. We tend to see everything in functional terms. We are what we do. We are what our power can perform. And looking at Terri, who can do very little, those who can think only in terms of function see a non-person. She is broken, and can't be fixed. She is useless, and uselessness is The Very Worst Thing. Since she's no use to herself or others, she may as well die.

But that is not how God sees things. Remember that when God created the first man, He called him "very good." He said that before Adam had done anything. Adam's being was a good thing. And just so, Terri's being is a good thing. Not because of what she can do, but because of who she is. One of Terri's cousins asked me the other night, "why is it that some people want Terri dead because she doesn't meet their 'standard' of minimum humanity? We know who she is, and we love her. And she knows we love her, and she can receive that love. Why do they want to deprive us of the ability to give her our love? Why do they want to deprive her of receiving our love?" I didn't have a ready answer to that. After thinking a few moments, I said, "They can't, or won't, see who she is. They only see her limitations, and imagine that is all there is to her."

Only in the case of people do we somehow imagine that the solution to problematic people is their destruction. We find certain unborn children problematic, so we solve the problem by destroying them. We find certain disabled people problematic, so we seek their destruction. The solution to the "problem" of Terri's disability isn't to destroy her, but to see beyond her limitations, to see who she is.