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Between Life and Death: The Schiavo Case

Guy Rundle

The grotesque struggle over Terri Schiavo has now concluded with her death — followed by an autopsy both literal and figurative. Any number of reflections could be drawn from its awful endgame. Pointless to point out the number of Americans who died from curable conditions in those two weeks, victims of a private health system, or the desperate cynicism and cowardice of many members of Congress.

Yet running deeper is the space that such events opens up between the old positions of a simple battle between the right-to-lifers and the right-to-die movement. One of the arguments made — including by the Vatican, which is usually liberal on the discontinuation of treatment — was that the withdrawal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding and hydration tubes constituted a denial of the basic human care that should continue unto death. But Schiavo wasn’t being fed and given drink — she was being hydrated and ‘nutrated’ by hi-tech medical devices that have only relatively recently come into general use. They do not come under the ethical command that one should continue basic care until death, they come under the Hippocratic Oath’s ruling that treatment should not be prolonged if its futility has made it ‘vicious’.

But ethical codes framed in earlier eras are of limited help now that medical technology can keep alive people whose brains have been substantially damaged or destroyed. To talk of ‘rights’ is meaningless in such a case — Terri Schiavo’s conflicting rights simply cancel each other out. One of the most interesting developments was the strain such events put on American political life. Although the majority of Americans rejected Congressional intervention, there was enough major feeling that this constituted a life-or-death struggle for the separation of powers to be pretty flagrantly breached. At one point, officers of the Florida equivalent of the department of community services were discharged to remove Schiavo, and armed federal guards were placed around the hospital.

This would seem to mark a strain in the unity of the Republic reminiscent of the segregation era, and potentially more significant. If growing numbers of fundamentalist Christians will not accept the legitimicy of a republic founded by secular humanists, how far will they go in opposition to it? Is fundamentalism, to a degree, a hysterical reaction to the way in which hi-tech society transforms life? In cases like Terri Schiavo’s we have so comprehensively beaten back nature that we have created a third state of being that is neither fully life nor death. To mistake such machine-dependent states of being for full human life is to not recognise how profoundly we have changed life itself — or the new ethical and existential choices we thereby face.

Guy Rundle