American Enterprise Online
April 5, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd
After suffering a heart attack and brain damage in 1990, Terri Schiavo lived for 15 years before dying late last week. For some, how she died was cruel—and how she lived was a mix of miracle and medicine. For others, how she lived was cruel—and how she died was far better than the half-life she knew.
The operative word here, it seems, is lived. Terri Schiavo lived for 15 years. She may have needed help from time to time. Of course, most of us do. Even without that help, something inside her, something about her, wanted to live. And as long as she received food and water, she lived. When those necessities of life were taken away, she didn’t.
Her slow-motion death has forced us to deal with questions about life.
Not surprisingly, President George W. Bush had an unequivocal answer to those questions, as is his way. “The strong have a duty to protect the weak,” he said after Ms. Schiavo expired. “In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in favor of life.”
Seemingly reading from the same script, Jesse Jackson stood apart from his philosophical brethren by standing up for life. “We must not be this callous about human life,” he warned. “We are being taught lessons by her enduring struggle.”
Some blame men like Bush and Jackson for contributing to an unnecessary and unseemly spectacle. But I would disagree. It may sound corny or quaint, but I had a sense of pride as America grappled with life and all the forces that influence an American’s right to it—words written and spoken, science and faith, church and state, the rule of law and the of the passions of man. Just how many countries on earth—even countries governed by Western notions of law—would spend this much energy and time and money to preserve someone’s life or end it?
But those feelings of pride are tempered by the reality and finality of what a human being had to endure the last two weeks of her life on earth. As Jackson put it, “It's unnecessary, in the end. She was starved and dehydrated to death. To me, it was merciless rather than merciful.”
Yet it was not meaningless.
As Ms. Schiavo drifted between our world and the next, with no food or water to sustain her broken body, Pope John Paul II began his journey through that same netherworld. He, too, was a shell of his former self. He, too, was silenced and slowed by sickness. He, too, garnered the attention of millions. He, too, relied on others to stay alive. He, too, was connected to a feeding tube at the end.
It doesn’t take an explanation from Samuel or Nathan to sense that heaven might be trying to remind us of something through these parallels.
Perhaps we are being reminded that life is not a flat line that merely connects two points, but a wondrous circle of many dimensions—physical, spiritual, mental. After all, we are helpless and weak at the beginning of this life—and at the end. We wait for others to guide us and carry us at the beginning of this life—and at the end. We rely on others to clothe us and steady us at the beginning of this life—and at the end. We communicate only with smiles and sobs at the beginning of this life—and at the end. We live on a feeding tube at the beginning of this life—and at the end.
And perhaps we are being reminded that life is precious to God; that “quality of life” is the most subjective and personal of notions; that unless we are protecting the life and liberty of others, we should not end a life; that if there’s a way to sustain life, we should. After all, we feed lab rats and water our lawns. Should we do less for people?
As author George Weigel said in National Review Online just after John Paul II followed Terri Schiavo into eternity, “there is no such thing as a disposable human being.” That’s true of beloved religious leaders, abandoned spouses, unwanted children, silver-haired seniors, and everyone in between.