Reflections on the Schiavo Case

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Now that we've had some time to distance ourselves from Terri Schiavo's death and some time to get distracted by the death of John Paul II, I've decided to share some of my mixed feelings from the whole affair. I know Wink is planning to do the same, and I didn't really intend to one-up him on this, but as I was working through the Christian Carnival I came across Neil Uchitel's post at Digitus, Finger & Co., and I wanted to say much more about his post than I have room for in my weekly Christian Carnival roundup. Wink can frame his comments as a response to this if this doesn't entirely preempt what he wanted to say, and I'm fairly sure it doesn't, so I've decided to go ahead with this.

Neil raises some important points about the Terri Schiavo case that I think most Christians who have written about it aren't considering, sometimes out of mere ignorance but sometimes, I suspect, out of total irrationality in the face of arguments that should convince them. I don't agree with everything Neil says, but he's right about enough things that I wanted to express my agreement in addition to noting my further reasons why I don't think his conclusions all follow. Much of what follows comes from my own comments on Neil's post, since I wanted to preserve what I'd spent so much time writing.

My Partial Agreements With Neil

I agree with Neil that most of the features of this case are not unique. It's therefore odd that Christians would all of a sudden act as if this case was all that special merely because someone was about to pull the feeding tube from someone in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). As Neil says, that happens all the time, and no one gets mad. It's thus irrational to use that and that alone as the basis for opposing this and not opposing the others, which is what many, many Christians have done. I'm not exaggerating. Truly a large number of the people in the Blogs for Terri group (I know, because most of them link to me, and I looked at every blog that did link to me) seem to leave it at just this. This isn't true of the more careful people, but most of the people saying loud and emotional things on any issue are not the most careful people talking about it. Anyway, in most cases people signed on very suddenly near the end. I'd been following the case for two years, but hardly anyone else who got behind it was.

Still, this is a unique combination, and the more careful people taking the view I take have emphasized this. PVS cases happen all the time, and people remove their feeding tubes all the time. In most cases, the spouse makes this decision (if the person is married), and that choice is honored. That was Michael's right in this case, according to Florida law, and other things being equal he should have been allowed to kill his wife this way. That's the way the law works. It�s important to note, though, that we don�t see very many cases of PVS with removed feeding tubes when we also see charges against a spouse�s ability to make a decision without a conflict of interest or with such a flimsy case for determining the consent of the person being killed. Those are significant factors when determining whether cases like this happen all the time, as Neil says they do, and it just seems to me that they don't happen very much if at all with all these features.

What clinches it, though, is this. The court order that led to her death was not simply a declaration that Michael can make the decision for her. It was an order that the feeding tube be removed. To my knowledge, this really is the first time a court in the U.S. has ordered someone killed when not sentencing that person for a crime the person has already been convicted of. That's unique, and it's really troubling. At most, the court should have continued to uphold his custody and not declare that an action be taken one way or the other.

I agree that Christians have looked stupid in this case in many ways, and some of that is from mere ignorance of the medical facts, treating Terri as if she was merely handicapped woman who has the full mental capacities of a fully handicapped woman. There's plenty of evidence that she wasn't, and all the polls designed to show that Americans were against this were focusing on her being handicapped without mentioning how she was handicapped.

From some, I detected an irrational commitment to a principle that life is worth doing anything possible to preserve, no matter what. That principle is not in the Bible, and it is not implied by anything in the Bible. It also seems idiotic to most people who are not Christians. When I think there are better reasons to question some of the reasoning behind the government order to kill Terri, it makes me wish all these people hadn't said things the way they did, because stridently offering bad arguments for a position I agree with and am trying to defend with better arguments is one of the worst things you can do for the case I'm trying to make.

I also agree that it's possible to read Michael in a way that's not as bad as what some are saying. In making this point, Neil is right to say that this will still involve something bad, since he's still abandoned his wife, whom he made a permanent commitment to until death and not just until PVS. In living with and literally mating with someone else while he was still married to Terri, he thus showed himself to be a man of weak character. There's no question about that.

Yet some of the things people have said about the man are just incredibly evil to say, even if the content of the claims is correct. It's entirely consistent with what's publicly known that he was telling the truth when he said she wanted to die rather than be kept alive in such conditions. He did his best to resist accepting that for five years, if this is right, and he tried to keep her selfishly against her wishes but finally gave in to what she wanted and conceded that there was no hope. This is consistent with what we know for sure. What Neil didn't mention is that Terri's parents encouraged him to move on romantically, the same parents who later turned on him and tried to use his doing this as evidence that he shouldn�t have custody anymore. At least that's one of the stories being told, and who knows what to believe with all the conflicting testimony in this case?

The main point shouldn't be that it's possible to read him as not so bad. Most of the conclusions people have drawn about him are not from knowledge but just from possible and perhaps even somewhat reasonable but not sure inferences. My main concern on this has not been whether he is bad. It's been whether Christians have any business talking about him the way they are. It�s thoroughly unChristian to slander him in the way that hundreds of Christians have been doing. It's completely unChristlike to focus on Michael's evil, even if the claims are correct, when the same points can be made with absolutely no reference to the man's character. It's the harshness of language and treatment of him that does remind me much of those Jesus condemned in the passage that found its way into the gospel written by John and is now known as John 7:53-8:11, a passage Neil refers to in his post.

My Disagreements With Neil

My partial support for Neil's conclusions is most seriously held back by one factor. I don't think we should ever be as confident of the claims Neil makes about what it's like being in a PVS. Neil agrees with the medical industry community that no one in a PVS experiences anything whatsoever. Therefore, there isn't anything that it's like to be in a PVS in the same way that there's nothing that it's like to be a rock.

I'm hesitant to accept this, for a few reasons. People have been diagnosed as being in a PVS but have been fully aware and have come out of it. See Wittenberg Gate for one case of someone diagnosed with a PVS who not only experienced everything going on during that time but later came out of it with a fairly normal life afterward. That means either the diagnosis was wrong, which means we should pay more heed to those who say it was wrong in Terri's case as well, or someone can be fully aware in a genuine PVS, in which case we should also not be sure that Terri wouldn't experience the effects of starvation or dehydration. So I'm not willing to concede that she didn't suffer. She may well have suffered as they killed her.

I'm worried about the claim that someone can't be fully conscious merely because of lack of brain activity in the part of the brain that they think is the only part where conscious activity can occur. They're actually wrong on that anyway, because some people can meditate in such a way that they can give off no brain waves but can then consciously pull themselves back into a position of giving them off. Ken Wilber's website has more on this, though it's not very well organized, and I'm not sure I could easily find the stuff on that, so I'm not going to try to link to it. He's ABD in biochemistry or something like that, so he's a bona fide scientist, and he's got hard scientific evidence that he can be conscious without giving off any alpha, beta, gamma, or theta waves.

After something like 40 years of meditative practice, Wilber can control what brain waves he gives off at will while mediatating, doing all combinations of the four kinds. Only alpha and beta waves normally occur during full consciousness, and theta and gamma occur during the two different states of sleep. Wilber can do all four while meditating, and he can stop and start them at will. He can also give off alpha and beta waves while sleeping, which means he's conscious at some level of the fact that he's sleeping while he's asleep. What's most important, though, is that he can cut all four brain wave types down to zero, which only happens with PVS cases normally, I believe, and then he can at will come back to normal consciousness again. That means that he's aware in some way while the part of his brain that Terri Schiavo had no use of is completely inactive.

That makes me worry about the standard conception that we can't be aware without brain activity in the area Terri was said not to have any activity. Perhaps the kind of evidence we have is enough to discount things like this when we're trying to come up with the best scientific theory, though I'm not even confident of that. Surely it's not enough to ground life or death decisions on the confidence that she wouldn't experience anything.

There was also a case (which I found out through a friend who read it in Reader's Digest, of all things, but apparently it's well documented somewhere; I wish I knew where) in which someone was declared brain dead on the operating table, and she was revived at some point. Afterward, she could describe what was going on in the room with precise detail during the time she was brain dead. I don't know what this or Wilber's case should mean. I wonder if they support substance dualism. Either way, I don�t trust the medical industry community on matters such as when someone could and couldn�t be aware or having genuine experieneces. I just don't think we know enough to make careful and informed judgments on such matters, at least in cases as serious as life or death.

One issue I wish Neil had dealt with is, I think, more important than most of these other concerns, and that's that this was a deliberate decision to kill her. People distinguish between killing and letting die, and I think there are clear cases of both, but this isn't one of either. It took an active motion, so it wasn't absolutely letting die. On the other hand, it was a treatment beyond what we could do without the technology we have, so it wasn't purely killing and was in one sense letting nature take its course. But then so are not using antibiotics, not performing a simple operation to remove an intestinal obstruction, not removing a tumor that will eventually lead to serious problems, and not doing a blood transfusion when you'll die without one.

The active/passive killing distinction is a difference of degree. Some cases won't clearly be one or the other, and these cases are right in that vague transitional area. What I suggest is more important in such cases is not whether it's active or passive killing, because there's at least some sense in which it is killing due to the need to do something for the death to occur. What I suggest is more important is what the motivation to kill is. I suspect that if it were legal, many people who pull feeding tubes in these cases would actively kill (in an unambiguous way, not in the weaker sense that pulling a feeding tube is actively killing).

Michael wanted her to die. There's no question about that. He wanted it to happen legally, but he wanted her to die. That means his action really was a killing in the same way that it's killing a mentally retarded baby to refuse to do a simple operation to remove a blockage. People do that all the time, and I think it's morally murder even if it's legally not. The only difference here, if any, is if she's not there anymore to kill. Neil says she's not, but as I said above I don�t think we should be as sure as that as the medical community wants us to be.

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Morning Links 4/08 from Pseudo-Polymath on April 8, 2005 9:01 AM

Good Morning. Jeremy Pierce has a long post on the Schiavo case. Now that passions have cooled, its well worth your time. Varifrank with an essay about the worth of a man. Also well worth your time. And to finish... Read More

Through the Looking Glass today: Maiken Hansen reveals the true origins of the peace sign. Wow, this brings back memories of youth group! I hope Maiken tackles backward masking and subliminal messages next! David Wayne on Sodom: a balanced and... Read More



I've said plenty on my blog, so I won't say it here, since of course I think what you've said is well-put and reasonable. The only thing I would offer as a correction on my behalf is that I am not necessarily THAT confident about a PVS diagnosis as I come off. Since my argument was largely about the case as it stood, I didn't spend much time discussing whether or not I actually think a state such as PVS is actually lacking cognition. In general, I think that's true, but I also know that it very well could NOT be true, and had the Christian activists come from that perspective I would have been much more amiable to the case against Terri's feeding tube being removed. But Christians' argument wasn't about that, and it was a gaping weakness that, as you said, left non-Christians genuinely scratching their heads about the Christian position on this case. My inveigle was directed towards what I saw as an incredibly inconsistent and irrational reasoning, and given my predilection to believe Terri Schiavo was, for all intents and purposes and as far as I could tell given the evidence (which, admittedly was conflicting) a non-sentient being, I said what I said the way I said it. It was not, however, an exhaustive catalog of my thoughts on the matter.

I have read about patients coming out of PVS, but I haven't read about any coming out of it past 90 days. That doesn't mean it's not possible, but it does imply that is extraordinarily unlikely.

I agree that it is very dangerous for the medical community to start labelling people so that it becomes progressively easier to render undesirables "non-persons", and thus, make them subject to eventual elimination.

As I said at the bottom of my post, whether or not Terri got a raw deal (and she may very well have) Christians did not think about this case very thoughtfully, imho, and they did little in my mind but make themselves look curiously irrational.

The Brazilian singer Ronie Von had been in state of coma for a number of years and, during that period, he could hear every thing people around him said, including the common place comments This guy is already dead, they are just prolonging the agony. He tried to cry and say that he was alive and conscious, but he could not. After he left the comatose state, he told everyone in the Hospital the things they said and thought he did not hear. Nurses and doctors, as well as visitors, got ashamed of themselves. Nowadays he has been against euthanasia since that time.

Neil, be confident that the best people taking the Schindlers' side have been saying this all along. The first time I ever heard about the case back in 2003 was from a website making exactly the point that you're saying Christians weren't making. The vast majority of the Christian and other pro-life bloggers weren't making it, but the ones I've spent more time looking at (Lydia McGrew on Right Reason, Dory at Wittenberg Gate, people at Pro-Life Blogs, and probably at least a dozen others) have done so, and there's no question that these are even the more influential people talking about the case. It's just that the masses don't listen to details and go running off with a message that makes them look silly, but I suppose that's what they get. That's how crowd behavior works.

BTW, this was an excellent post. Excellent.

I,too, read Neils blog post and wanted to comment on my blog. I would like to take time with it, as you have, because there were many different points to address.

I understand his frustration and think you are right about worrying about the dismissive statements made ( by many) about what people can or can't perceive in certain states. There is just so little understood about the human brain.

I think there is an explanation for why this hasn't been forefront for Christians. Many haven't felt comfortable, or have been unsure, about how the life/death ethical issue is constructed.
when was the last time this was addressed on the national scale? Seems like Karen Quinlan- which was from the other point of how much medical intervention is reasonable.

I think the point you made on "this really is the first time a court in the U.S. has ordered someone killed when not sentencing that person for a crime the person has already been convicted of. That's unique, and it's really troubling." is crucial. Absolutely crucial.

Interesting thoughts Jeremy. I think one of the difficulties for many bloggers was the urgency of the situation. It is a lot easier for people to calmly review everything now - but when the situation is urgent and information has to be found and kept up with then sometimes people miss stuff.
Personally I didn't write about Michael Schiavo's motives etc. I mentioned him twice briefly in a factual way. I considered it irrelevant and unnecessary to pillory him.
I see nothing incorrect about stating that Terri Schiavo was disabled - she was severely disabled and the term applies. I also agree that the PVS diagnosis was at the least questionable. Is some-one PVS because the law says so even when eminent neurologists say otherwise?
I didn't read all the Blogs4Terri posts that were written during that time - so I can't comment on some of the criticisms. However if we are going to talk about being silly then I think some silliness can go the other way. I've seen some posts recently in which all Blogs4Terri members are brushed with the same general strokes - which is exactly the same dynamic at work - people rushing in with badly formed judgments and stereotypes about others. I realise you have not done this. Neil's post veers into it though.
Personally I do not want to be too harsh. Bloggers represent a diversity of backgrounds, educational levels, and maturities in the Christian faith. I think the underlying motivation for most was simply to try and help.
I noticed as received hate mail and abusive comments during this period that many people assumed I was American, pro-death penalty, and rabidly pro-life. That's hysterical really. I also observed that there was not a neutral bunch of people just needing the facts - quite the opposite. I read sites where it was obvious that Terri Schiavo came second to hating a stereotypical view of Christians (see my little list above) - and so they were opposed to sustaining her life from that basis. The debate was far more complicated than just a bunch of people being over zealous and in some cases misinformed.

Jeremy -- excellent post! I'm glad others are taking careful stock of this matter. I've been saying some thing similar to what Neil has said for a while, from the perspective of a Christian lawyer, and I invite you to read my comments here, here, here, here and here.

Incidentally, I don't think you're correct about there being some unique aspect to the Judge's order in this case, but that's only a quibble with an excellent post.

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