Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Krauthammer on Schiavo 

Charles Krauthammer's opinion piece in today's Washington Post on the Terri Schiavo predicament is one of the most well thought out and well-expressed statements I have read on the subject. Here is the nut of it:

The crucial issue in deciding whether one would want to intervene to keep her alive is whether there is, as one bioethicist put it to me, "anyone home." Her parents, who see her often, believe that there is. The husband maintains that there is no one home. (But then again he has another home, making his judgment somewhat suspect.) The husband has not allowed a lot of medical testing in the past few years. I have tried to find out what her neurological condition actually is. But the evidence is sketchy, old and conflicting. The Florida court found that most of her cerebral cortex is gone. But "most" does not mean all. There may be some cortex functioning. The severely retarded or brain-damaged can have some consciousness. And we do not go around euthanizing the minimally conscious in the back wards of mental hospitals on the grounds that their lives are not worth living.

Given our lack of certainty, given that there are loved ones prepared to keep her alive and care for her, how can you allow the husband to end her life on his say-so? Because following the sensible rules of Florida custody laws, conducted with due diligence and great care over many years in this case, this is where the law led.

For Congress and the president to then step in and try to override that by shifting the venue to a federal court was a legal travesty, a flagrant violation of federalism and the separation of powers. The federal judge who refused to reverse the Florida court was certainly true to the law. But the law, while scrupulous, has been merciless, and its conclusion very troubling morally. We ended up having to choose between a legal travesty on the one hand and human tragedy on the other.

Read the whole thing.

Krauthammer is a Harvard-educated MD, and was once chief resident in psychiatry at Mass. General Hospital -- he is better equipped than the vast majority of commentators to assess the medical issues in the Schiavo case.

Many have opined, and I agree, that nothing good will come of this case. Much that smells rotten has already grown out of it, both morally and legally. That's bad for all of us. It will take a long time to repair the damage to our social fabric that's already been done.

What's bad for Terri Schiavo is that for all of our society's sophistication and legal complexity, when you get right down to it she is being put down like an old dog. Whether she's allowed to die of dehydration or given a lethal injection, the result is the same, and the burden will rest just as heavily on the consciences of those who make it happen. As Jay Tea observes, "... [T]he difference between sins/lies of omission and of commission is illusory. It is the consequences of such acts that matter in the long run, not whether you acted or simply allowed events to unfold. If you have the ability to prevent a wrong and choose not to, then you have become a party to that wrongdoing."

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