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Earl Doherty

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Terri Schiavo and the Religious Right  (March 25, 2005)

     Terri Schiavo is brain-dead as far as her consciousness and self-awareness are concerned; on this medical doctors are agreed. She has no hope of recovering her consciousness or returning to any sort of life. She has been in a vegetative state, relying on artificial means of sustenance, for fifteen years. However, certain very limited motor functionings persist, as we can see on stock footage news reports. Her eyes open and blink; her face conveys a certain expression. Perhaps other movements of the body occur. But they are automatic, there is no conscious life, no awareness behind them.
     These automatic motor functions give something to Terri Schiavo's parents, the illusion that she is not entirely gone from them. It may also give them a faint hope that someday she will 'awaken' from her comatose state, even though medical opinion holds out not the slightest hope for it. The agony of Terri's parents at losing their daughter is, of course, real and a tragedy. They are deserving of our sympathies. But is society thereby obligated to devote all possible resources to keeping her body alive indefinitely, to the exclusion of all other considerations?
     Suppose medical science had the capacity (and it may well have in the foreseeable future) to produce or 'keep alive' certain bodily motor functions
I don't mean by feeding but by directly stimulating the brain or body to create them. Could Terri Schiavo's parents demand that these measures be taken to make her body function to some degree so as to give her a semblance of life and provide them with a puppet-daughter? Which is essentially all she is at the moment.
     What has been particularly appalling is the weighing in of the religious voice in support of keeping Terri Schiavo's body alive no matter what. Such support is coming virtually entirely from this constituency. Its rhetoric has been extreme even for them, such as likening the removal of the feeding tube to Terri's own "crucifixion." They talk of her
and her rightsas though there is a living person inside that shell, and they ignore her declared wishes about not being kept alive under such conditions. I am not the only one to express the idea that this is entirely hypocritical, that the religious right has seized on this case for political reasons, in order to promote itself and to make noise. As in the debate over abortion, the religious mind needs an enemy, a polemical issue over which it can range itself 'on the side of the angels.' There has been much talk about God and morality. Even here there is hypocrisy. Why is all this energy and the combined voice of evangelical America not raised instead to God himself, a collective prayer for some kind of alleviation of Terri's condition, perhaps even for her emergence from her 15-year comasome signal that their God actually gives a damn? For all their bows toward heaven, the religious right shows very little confidence in the Deity being able or willing to do something loving and merciful. Certainly, miracles are out of the question.
     As for George W. Bush and the members of Congress, they have behaved with all the self-righteous fervor and emotionalism of a revivalist gathering. If this is statesmanship, then Jimmy Swaggart could be the next President. Politics is ideally about steering a moderate middle course, about making rational choices, but there was no rationality in evidence in Congress. But then, there is precious little of that on the American public scene at all these days.
     This situation has been faced before. In both 2001 and 2003, Terri's feeding tube was removed, and the religious right forced its reinsertion. Was anything thereby accomplished? Is she any closer to a miracle? Is it simply a case of bare life for bare life's sake, no matter what its condition? The life that has been prolonged, that others have condemned her to, is hardly a dignified one. And they have ensured that her death will not be, either, expressly ignoring her own wishes. None of these things matter in the face of religious conviction. We are treated all over the nation to parades of frenzied believers bearing biblical placards and statues. Are the saints in heaven, too, in support of the bizarre travesty Terri's 'life' has become?
      The religious right seeks to impose its faith, its moral standards, on society as a whole. But their own lives are no more a reflection of that morality than those of non-fundamentalist Christians or of atheists. Surveys show they are often worse. Their mindless fanaticism has few limits, and appeals to rationality and other points of view fall on deaf ears. Now they have the government aligned with them, cooperating to impose those views and shout down dissenting rights. Fortunately, the appeals courts have so far seen their way to making more sober-minded decisions. Facing the prospect of failure, the evangelicals have approached Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. When he pointed out that he could not act in contravention of the Constitution, one commentator summed it up: Governor Bush was being urged to ignore the law of the land and impose the law of God. Frightening.
     Is it the law of God that Terri Schiavo continue in this state for another 15 years? Another 50? Terri's death at long last would not be a crucifixion. Rather, on this Good Friday, she is crucified to her hospital bed. Instead of with nails, it's with her feeding tube. Only there is to be no resurrection after three days. They would have her stretched on her cross until her body died of old age. Where does the religious mind think her spirit or soul would be hanging out during all that time? If she is truly "alive" then she has not yet gone to heaven. Is her purgatory to be prolonged as long as possible? Is Terri's husband never to have closure, never to get on with his own life? Nor Terri's parents, tied to the shell of a daughter who will never give them what they hopelessly crave?
     If all this is "the law of God," it's time we changed the laws. Maybe it's time to change Gods.

Earl Doherty

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