Friday, April 01, 2005

What Is A Life Worth?

The tragic (and to my mind, criminal) death of Terri Schiavo, along with new concern about the health of the Pope, brings to mind the continuing debate, now observed, now forgotten, of the value of Life. Whatever your opinion in a specific case, it seems fit to me that we should examine that basic question.

Biologically, the will to live is arguably the strongest instinct in any animal. This is why thoughts of suicide are presently considered a sign of mental illness, since it runs counter to the hard-wiring we live with. It’s also counter to almost every social order- suicide and death are signals of failure, resignation, and denial of community. Philosophically, the common theme has been consistently to prefer life – “Where there’s life, there’s hope” is an old and common saying, so pervasive that no one is sure of its origin or source.

Modern society has begun to war against that morality, however. “Suicide is painless” was the title song for the movie and television show “M*A*S*H”, and that theme has crept into the political dialogue, to the point that when Terri Schiavo’s case became a national debate, it was phrased as “right to die”, rather than “right to live”; the assumption was made not only that Terri wanted to die, but that it was morally right for her to commit suicide, even by starvation. Doctors sworn to Hippocrates’ admonition to “First, do no harm” are actually debating the practice of killing patients, sometimes by their choice, sometimes without their consent, under certain conditions. And lawyers schooled in a nation created by a nation founded on the premise of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and the protections of the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, in particular the 14th and the Bill of Rights, argue for the destruction of unwanted pregnancies and the extermination of people unable to speak for themselves. Guardians are now made Executioners in this obscene parody of justice and ethics.

But what is a life worth? A reader on one of the many threads about the Terri Schiavo case observed that by and large, it is the young and physically strong who believed the most strongly that Terri would want to die in such a condition. Those who are older and who have ourselves seen something of what happens in the world, do not jump so quickly at the prospect of leaving life, not from fear of death but love for the gift that is Life.

Back in 2001, my daughter came down with an illness, a fever which rose and fell, but always stayed above the 100-degree mark. The diagnosis came back as Biological Meningitis, but this was scant comfort, as nothing done could lower the fever. After the third straight day, the doctors warned my wife and me, that our daughter might die if they could not break the fever, and in any case would likely suffer brain damage. After the fifth straight day of high fever, anywhere from 101 degrees to 106, the fever finally broke, and my little girl recovered. Fully. I am not able to explain why she recovered fully, anymore than the doctors could ever explain why the fever resisted all efforts to lower her temperature, but I am very, very grateful to God for that grace. But even if my daughter had suffered brain damage from the disease and fever, there is no chance that I would consider her life any less precious, or any less important for me to protect. I love my wife and daughter more than myself, and if necessary I would die to save them. In sickness and in health, for better or worse, as the vows go, and it is true for my family as it is for my marriage. Anyone who will not keep that level of commitment should not offend God by pretending the words in the first place. Thank God no one was in a place or position to kill my little girl, no matter her condition.

A couple years ago, I collapsed at work, dizzy from a stomach virus. An ambulance was called, and they ran all sorts of tests, ignoring me completely, as if my personal and direct experience were worthless in the diagnosis and treatment. The nurses and doctors paid no attention to me at all, and in the end the whole episode was played out to its ludicrous and expensive conclusion, which finally discovered what I had been trying to say all along; if the doctors had just listened to me, they could have saved the insurance company (and my premiums) a lot of money, and themselves a lot of work and time. I know from direct experience, that when professionals do not listen to the source, they are arrogant fools, and there is no shortage.

A few months back, I was laid low with a nasty virus. I couldn’t stand, couldn’t eat, even water made me vomit. So I just laid on the bed, watching things go round and round by themselves. Talking was extremely difficult, and I was effectively helpless. It occurs to me, that if my wife had a mind like Michael Schiavo’s, she might have gotten me confined to a hospital bed with a feeding tube, and I might have ended up badly indeed. Think I’m exaggerating? Stick a finger down your throat and try to talk, and see how coherent you sound. Now, imagine you are under a drug regimen, so concentration and focus are made very difficult, and of course, if the person who put you into the hospital also enjoys control over your treatment and doctors, if you get doctors already convinced you’re a vegetable, it’s that much harder to fight for yourself. Now, imagine more than a decade of such experience, and if torture isn’t the word that fits, you haven’t been paying attention. This is not to berate the many fine medical professionals out there, or disparage the people who really are trying to do the best they can for their loved ones, but it begs the question, of how we really know whether the best interests are being pursued, when the range of options is allowed to include death, especially a lingering torture like starvation of food and water.

Pain and suffering is not a reason to die. Many of our veterans suffer life-long pain, and they go on living very productive lives, and their courage in bearing their pain is continuing proof not only of their integrity and purpose, but a boon to all those who meet them and can learn of heroism from a living example. Some have noted the case of Stephen Hawking; imagine if such a mind lived in a body paralyzed just a little more than it already is; a century ago, his condition might well have been diagnosed the same as Terri Schiavo. Only the truly ghoulish would suggest we should dispose of a person, simply because their body has limits! Admiral Nelson lost an arm, leg, and eye, but went on fighting. Helen Keller could neither see nor hear, yet she went on to write and teach. What cowardice indeed, and how small a vision, to think that a disabled body means a useless life!

And who shall set the standard for a life worth living, anyway? There are artists and writers, whose work is not fully appreciated until long after their lives have ended. There are many types of accomplishments, some of which need to be experienced to be recognized. How then shall anyone say ‘this one is productive and may live, but this one is unproductive, and shall be destroyed’? Who has the right to say that a hundred years is enough if you can still walk around and chat like a talk show host, but if you need a wheelchair or are quiet or seem a bit unusual, you are not worth the effort to keep around? Who has the right to say that a baby may only be born if he/she will be physically perfect, as some have now argued? Who has the right say that an infant must earn his first breath? Who, when it’s all considered, has the right to close off a life when there is any choice? We are none of us perfect, so when a decision is in doubt, why would anything but Life be the choice?

We have turned a corner. It remains now to be seen whether Hell or merely Purgatory is under our next step, but we are moving away from Heaven, if we dare to move away from Life.

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