Saving Terri Schiavo, Killing America

Behind the right-to-life pitch is a culture of death

"The authority of certain physicians to be designated by name in such manner that persons who, according to human judgment, are incurable can, upon a most careful diagnosis of their condition of sickness, be accorded a mercy death."

— Adolf Hitler, 1939

The question seems pretty simple: Should Terri Schiavo, the nation's most famous not-quite-dead heroine, be allowed to live? Feeding tube in? Feeding tube out?

Or, for those with a slightly more metaphysical bent, the queries might be worded: Is Schiavo alive or not alive? If "not alive," does that necessarily mean she's dead?

What is certain is that, as of this publication, Schiavo has been in a limbo the doctors call a "persistent vegetative state" for 13 years, nine months and 25 days. That medical phrase is meant to convey that on an intellectual level, Schiavo — who was a vibrant woman before a brain-starving heart attack at age 26 — has checked out.

Her heart beats, her lungs huff and puff air, her facial muscles occasionally twitch, her other organs more or less pump, secrete and process — except for her brain.

Maybe our inquiry should be: Is there a difference for Schiavo? For us?

Part of the problem in framing the paramount question about Schiavo is that, for her, it's irrelevant. She probably doesn't know that in some mechanical ways she's alive (defined as: not utterly dead). Which means that she likely won't recognize the moment when she becomes decidedly deceased (if she isn't already).

Schiavo is clearly providing others with life — of sorts. She is for the media, in their own persistent vegetative states, that most sustaining of all stories — long-term, high-emotion impact with little necessity to actually think.

For politicians, the opportunities to pander to the religious right have afforded absolutely delectable nourishment. Just days before Halloween, in an eloquently appropriate celebration of the macabre, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ignored the rule of law (hey, he's a Bush) and utilized hastily passed sham legislation to re-insert Schiavo's feeding tube after a judge had OK'd its removal.

Picture that tube entering one arm while a much larger tube, exiting from another limb, is voraciously sucked on by a ghoulish governor seeking to drain every drop of political nutrient from the tragic Schiavo. George W. Bush, not to be outdone by his baby brother as a political Dracula, quickly poked his own straw into Schiavo's nascent corpse via a "me-too" declaration of support for bro Jeb.

And, although it's almost too distasteful to mention their names, Florida's Republican state Sen. Daniel Webster and House Yapper Johnnie Byrd, both bucking for the U.S. Senate, were shameless in introducing the legislation enabling the Brothers Bush's vampiric publicity grab. Call Byrd and Webster Florida's own Igor and Renfield.

Schiavo's plight is such sweet nectar for the craven, but does her role as gourmet political food mean she has acquired a netherworld form of life?

Lost in all of the self-serving performances at le cirque de la mort in Clearwater are some far deeper issues, ones that are really important to every individual and ones that ultimately define what type of society we will choose to be. Indeed, it's harder to imagine deeper and more treacherous social fault lines than those involving life and death — or, more precisely, who decides whether you, yes, you, live or die and why.

Intriguingly, as we'll see, not all is as it seems in measuring these ethical divides. "Progressives" often hold views that are rooted in the horror-philosophies of Nazis and racial "purifiers." Meanwhile, faux (read: neo) "conservatives" — notably the Bushites — claim to be on the side of life, while their dark family histories and lethal deeds say otherwise.

Oh, by the way, I quoted Hitler at the beginning of this column. Where did he get such notions? Right from a movement with its roots deep in American soil.

Let's meet Doctor Death. No, not Jack Kevorkian; he was merely the Technician of Death. I'm speaking of Princeton University ethics guru Peter Singer, who absolutely adores cuddly little animals but not necessarily infant humans.Singer, an Australian who (I include this for irony) lost three of four grandparents to the Holocaust, was a founder of the animal liberation movement, declaring in a most erudite manner that many mammals were sufficiently self-aware to be considered "persons." Gleefully wacky groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were born of such ruminations.

It's only fair to recount that Singer is aggressive in pushing many noble causes — providing relief for famine victims, for example. There is, however, a chilling corollary to his declaration that your dog and cat — not to mention whales, pigs, monkeys and a whole menagerie of not-so-dumb critters — are "persons." According to Singer, human beings who have lost their capacity for self-awareness or never had it, don't have a claim on society's resources to keep them alive. By his logic, Schiavo has less right to life than Fluffie or Fido.

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