Right to Life

Mike Duigou got me thinking about the whole "Right to Life" topic. So has CNN. Allow me to post a brief personal commentary on this important subject.

First of all, it seems self-evident to me (and the founders of our nation and our universe) that humans have an inalienable right to life. Webster defines inalienable as "incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred". Here are some foundational texts that support this concept and upon which our national identity and our laws and our ethics are based:

Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Constitution of the United States of America
Amendment V & XIV: No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...

The Hippocratic Oath (has provided moral guidance to physicians for 2500 years)
I will not give a fatal draught (read: deadly drug) to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.

The Holy Bible (King James Version)
Exodus 20:13   Thou shalt not kill. (read: murder)

Unfortunately we have a national history of legally depriving (alienating) entire groups of people of their basic rights based primarily on prejudice (slavery) or convenience (abortion). We've since corrected our moral failure in one of these areas. Tragically, we seem to be on the verge of adding another disgrace to our national record... permitting the taking of life based on a misguided sense of compassion (involuntary euthanasia). Holland decriminalized euthanasia in 1984 and today one in five assisted suicides is without explicit consent, and this form of death has risen to 3% of all deaths in Holland. It's not inconceviable that America might someday  give doctors the right to terminate the life of deformed children and the eldery without consent.

There are also several reasonable and legitimate ways in which our legal system provides for exemptions to an individual's right to life. For example, a person may choose to waive that right (eg: a living will, voluntary assisted suicide) and have their life terminated by another. Or that right may be withdrawn by a court based on a conviction of a capital crime (eg: death sentence). Or that right may be justly and forcefully preempted thru police action, acts of war, Presidential Order (sanctioned assassination of an enemy of the State), or (self) defense. Finally, a guardian may, under certain circumstances, make the choice to terminate the life of someone under their care (eg: a brain dead child or spouse).

I do believe that long-term medical life-support should be only applied to sustain life when there is a clear expectation of a reasonable recovery of a desired quality of life. Yes, I know those are ambiguous terms, wide open to (mis)interpretation. Naturally there will be cases about which reasonable people with no hidden agenda or conflict of interest might disagree. It is in these cases, where there is no living will (or decision by a devoted/informed guardian) and there does not exist compelling evidence of a persistent state of unconsciousness, that a society must choose life over death. It is simply not our place to play God. While it might be technically possible to sustain the biological "life" of a child with no brain wave activity using an iron lung, a kidney dialysis machine, a catheter, and heart bypass pump, no rational/loving person would desire an extended expression of technology overriding nature in a case like this.

However, the present case of Terri Schiavo stretches our ability to divine an ethically appropriate resolution to a life that is clearly demonstrating some level of cognitive ability. If our society prevails to involuntarily euthanize her, we should at least follow the humane process we use to terminate those on death row... inject her with pain killers followed by quick acting drug to stop her heart. How can we allow an innocent invalid who can't speak or scream in pain to starve to death over a period of one to two weeks! Try going without water for a day or two and see how you feel. That's pure torture and is as sick and barbaric as ripping apart a perfectly viable full-term baby from the womb their mommy. Yes, those are emotional words. For an unimaginable act.

Right to Life can be a complex issue at the boundary conditions and corner cases. However, those are extremely rare. The vast majortiy of cases of slavery, abortion, and euthanasia are easily resolved by simply considering the value of life and the motives of those who desire the termination of life or the alienation of rights.

For me, the point that bothers me the most is that a man who cohabitates with another woman and has two children with her, is not without a conflict of interest in dealing with the incapacitated woman he is actually married to. The court should definitely have realized this long ago and appointed someone else as guardian. That the court has not shows that they are not acting in the best interest of society at large.

Posted by PatrickG on March 21, 2005 at 02:18 PM EST #

I may agree with you in some of the points you make, but still I think any woman should have control of her own body as long as the fetus is not capable of life on it's own. Life in itself has no value in my opinion, but it is what you make of it that has a value. On the other hand, I think any humane society can not under any circumstances accept the death penalty as it's what you people from the U.S. call cruel and unusual. I really can't understand that a western democracy can accept that. I havn't really followed the actual case of Terri Schiavo, but generally I think everyone should have the right to life, but _also_ the general right to terminate their own life if that is really their direct communicated will or their will communicated by people close to them. The problem in this case is clearly that people close to her has different opinions about what she would want. PatrickG says that her husband has a conflict of interest, but so does Terri:s parents, how could you expect any parent to decide about the termination of their childs life without any conflict of interest. The only thing that should be important in this case in my opinion is what she wants or would have wanted in a case like this.

Posted by Magnus on March 21, 2005 at 03:51 PM EST #

"Thou shalt not kill" is generally accepted to be more accurately translated as "Thou shalt not commit murder". Most agree this two translations have different meanings. Murder is a crime, killing is an act.

Posted by Mark on March 21, 2005 at 04:27 PM EST #

I don't support the death penalty (too much power given to the State, too arbitrary, too easy for a jury to be emotionally swayed, etc, etc) but I found Magnus's comments to be contradictory in my opinion.

"Life in itself has no value in my opinion, but it is what you make of it that has a value." and "I think any humane society can not under any circumstances accept the death penalty as it's what you people from the U.S. call cruel and unusual."

One would think, based on the above statements, that you'd be against abortion but for the death penalty. An unborn fetus has not even had a chance to make \*anything\* of its potential life, who knows what he/she may accomplish if given a chance. On the flip side, a person sitting on death row (if we accept that he/she is indeed guilty of the crime) has certainly proven to society that what he can make of this life is nothing but destructive and horrible. Who is more deserving of life?

In the current Shiavo case, I don't see what the US Congress thinks it is doing second-guessing years of Florida State court proceedings. I could see a moral stance if the question was solely over the method of ending the poor woman's life (starvation versus some quicker method), but it is not. It is an attempt to second guess and rehash years of well trodden ground long after any good could come of it.

Posted by Ryan on March 21, 2005 at 06:05 PM EST #

Oh and Dave? Your selective quote from the ancient version of the Hippocratic oath is interesting in that you leave in the abortion (abortive remedy) point, but leave out the line that says "I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work." Which basically implies surgeons (barbers of old I suppose) are different than doctors. If that is the case, why can't abortionists (or practioners of euthanasia) be different too? If one point is outmoded, as the surgeon distinction certainly is, why can't the abortion point be outmoded as well.

Food for thought.

Posted by Ryan on March 21, 2005 at 06:17 PM EST #

Patrick - you're right... there is a strong indication of conflict of interest on the part of the husband. Magnus - I agree with Ryan that your position appears conflicted. What are the laws in your country re: these topics? Mark - I agree with you. I listed several ways in which "killing" is acceptable and moral. And serveral in which it is not. Ryan - I hadn't consdered the knife clause. Interesting. Thanks everyone for your thoughts.

Posted by Dave Brillhart on March 21, 2005 at 10:21 PM EST #

A thoughtful and clearly personal statement about a complex situation, right up to the point where you say "If the liberal element of our society prevails" and crudely turn it into another partisan squabble. It isn't. There are many libertarians who are angry with this legislative intrusion into a personal and medical situation, and there are many liberals who take the opposite view. So don't slip into stereotypical thinking.

And at the end of all this, I disagree with you quite strongly. You seem to interpret right to life as obligation to live. Nowhere do you respect the right to death with dignity. Oh sure, you say: "There are also several reasonable and legitimate ways in which our legal system provides for exemptions to an individual's right to life. For example, a person may choose to waive that right (eg: a living will, voluntary assisted suicide) and have their life terminated by another." Oh really? Can all residents of the USA obtain an assisted suicide, legally? I thought not. And if someone has not completed a living will, have they thereby given up all right to be treated as they would wish? That seems like a very slippery slope.

Posted by Geoff Arnold on March 21, 2005 at 11:16 PM EST #

Dave: good informative value! In an example of my family, "the right" to life example goes back to my great grand-mother. She laboured to birth her eight son and then she died. Thus became the William Anna clan. A story repeated in many families. An item that is uncertain to me: In this current national news story: Is the role that a hospice plays in the events of the end of life saga. One reference link is here. http://www.americanhospice.org/legal_corner.htm It seems, the hospice is a good care facility that needs guidence from loved ones family (\*.\*) to facilitate the best interest and intentions. As we all come to terms with this life cycle in our own immediate relations , we develop a sensitivity to do the best. http://www.dyingwithdignity.ca/ http://www.bruderhof.com/articles/DyingWithDignity.htm http://www.praguepost.com/P03/2004/Art/0729/news1.php dignity may not even be the best choise of a word. There are unfortunate accidents and end of life happens. Love to those people that lost kin in such a manner. submitted with respect to all commentators and thoughts of the presenter. "The right to Life is complex "rtg

Posted by BOMBOVA on March 21, 2005 at 11:23 PM EST #

Yesterday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune put it well. Yes, I know it's a partisan analysis, which I just argued against. but the partisanship here seems to be not liberal vs. conservative, but constitutional vs. pandering:

Editorial: Liberty lost/Whose death is it, anyway? March 22, 2005 ED0322

Oh, for the days when people just died. When a loved one who could no longer take soup from a spoon was known to have finished living. In those days, grieving families could quarrel with no one but fate. Heeding the sad fact that nothing can restore consciousness to a badly damaged brain, they studied the art of acceptance.

The world has since changed utterly, as the strange political kidnapping of Terri Schiavo makes plain. Perhaps the only gladness to be gleaned from this mad story is that the hostage herself is not really around to witness her exploitation. But Americans should be embarrassed on her behalf to see Washington's right-wing radicals seize this permanently unconscious woman for a totalitarian fibfest.

Totalitarian? What else can we call a government that elbows its way to a deathbed to dictate whether or not its occupant shall be allowed to die naturally? Where is the conservatism in insisting that a woman be interminably fed through a stomach tube -- despite her expressed wishes to the contrary? And how can America's chief champions of "the sanctity of marriage" justify their brazen intrusion into the personal lives of Terri Schiavo and husband Michael?

Sustained by a feeding tube for 15 years, Terri Schiavo has no meaningful brain function. About this there is no medical dispute -- no matter what her parents may imagine they see in her reflexive grimaces. Though even her husband had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that his wife would forever linger in a persistent vegetative state, he ultimately resolved to honor his wife's declared wishes and direct that her feeding tube be removed.

That was years ago. Soon after, Terri and Michael Schiavo were swept into an absurd political drama in which facts seem to play no role. Never mind that Michael Schiavo's every act has been in keeping with law and common medical practice. Somehow, this particular Florida case had all the makings of right-wing infotainment. Once the production played its way through Florida's Legislature and court system, the feds took the stage.

And so it is that House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, has seen fit to call Michael Schiavo's attempt to honor his wife's wishes "an act of medical terrorism" and of "homicide" -- a characterization so vile it may qualify as slander. President Bush was so determined to "save Terri" that he winged his way back from vacation to sign a law tossing her destiny into the federal courts.

It's a silly obstructionist game, and if American liberty means anything, it will soon end. Federal court is the wrong place for reviewing state policy, and in any case this controversy raises no unresolved matter. But forget protocol: Thanks to Washington's bosses, the private business of a Florida man and his vegetative wife is headed for a trip through the federal court system. For Terri and Michael Schiavo, it's likely to be a victory tour: In ruling after ruling, the nation's courts have emphasized that individuals, not government, should make decisions about personal medical matters. How can the champions of "small government" -- the very authors of this vulgar, tyrannical escapade -- possibly disagree?

Posted by Geoff Arnold on March 21, 2005 at 11:48 PM EST #

Geoff, there are so many factual errors in the piece you posted... 1) there were times she was fed without the tube, 2) There is a dispute between doctors, and further, the MRI which would allow for a precise diagnosis of "persistent vegetative state" has never been performed. 3) There were no expressed wishes of Terri, otherwise, why would Michael only start to bring up the issue after a few years? 4) Under Florida law, which allows common law marriages, Michael is legally married to Terri but also in a common law marriage to someone else. This single item, to me, shows that the courts are not doing their job of examining conflicts of interest in this case. You would think, with someone's life at stake, and Michael set to receive a large sum of money from Terri's estate, that the court would proceed very carefully and do its job thoroughly.

Posted by PatrickG on March 22, 2005 at 12:19 AM EST #

Hi Geoff... You're right, I didn't need to include the partisan jab to make my point. In fact, it is probably distracting. I'm going to change my entry as follows:

Orginal: "If the liberal element of our society..."
New: "If our society..."

Posted by Dave Brillhart on March 22, 2005 at 02:04 AM EST #

Thanks, Dave.

I strongly recommend the interview in Salon today with Rev. John Paris, the Walsh Professor of Bioethics at Boston College.

Posted by Geoff Arnold on March 22, 2005 at 04:09 AM EST #

First of all, let me express my appreciation to everyone for posting intelligent and reasonable arguments for whatever side you fall on. This is an emotional and difficult issue and I've seen more intelligent discussion here, in this blog, than I have anywhere in the regular media. Nice job.

So, at the risk of ruining all that, here are my thoughts:

  • I generally favor the "right to life" side, however, I also trust the husband's statement that he is following Terri's wishes. Unfortunately, those were not written down in a living will. So many people are discussing this issue in general terms, but there are specifics to this case and I don't always see those points acknowledged as they should be. If her own wish was to not be kept alive artificially, why would you want to deny her own wishes?
  • Many of the "right to life" arguments are faith-based, as you would expect. However, those who believe in such things should also believe in the human soul. So my question is, what happens to Terri's soul during all of this? Is she denied an afterlife while her body lives? Is it already gone? If there is a chance that her soul is "trapped" in her body, is it right to keep it there? I don't expect anyone to be able to answer these questions, but I don't think that the faith-based arguments are complete without considering this point.

Posted by Kevin on March 24, 2005 at 04:46 AM EST #

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