Examining the alive, the dead and the line that divides them

By Aaron Woden-Schwartz

This editorial has no real thesis in the advocational sense – that is, I will not be preaching any point of view or issuing a call to action. This is merely an article meant to discuss certain facts in this week’s hot-topic current events in ways that many may not have considered. Perhaps this will enable my readers to reference these events with a fuller understanding of their position in the socio-political scheme of things, or maybe I’m just contributing to the heap of reiterated hype. Regardless, here goes.

To this point our beloved Collegian has been refreshingly devoid of editorials concerning either the over-sensationalized/over-politicized Terri Schiavo case or the passing of the pope. It has also been neglectful of the artificial life support question common to both of them. Nevertheless, I assume that we’ve all heard of Terri Schiavo, and I think it’s safe to assume that we’ve also heard mention at one point or another over the years of Pope John Paul II. What we have not yet discovered en masse is a side of these issues that has been disturbingly neglected given its pertinence to the actors involved and the moral framing of the issues.

Three interesting discussions come to light: the late pope’s view of artificial life support, Bush’s association with artificial life support, and the federal government’s relationship to the states.

The first concerns the discussion of the morality of pulling Schiavo’s feeding tube and whether or not this was murder tacitly supported by the state, the state mercifully allowing an incognizant woman to die, or something in between. Most of the protests to her passing were made along religious lines, and made by predominantly religious people. Thus, the issue has been painted as a typical “moral issue,” similar to gay rights and abortion, in which the secular and the religious are at odds with one another. The untold story here is that in the weeks prior to his death Pope John Paul II declined a feeding tube to artificially prolong his life.

This doesn’t seem so radical of a revelation, yet it does undermine our image of the discussion and of the conflicting sides and interests involved. If we are to assume that the only certainty in life is death, then artificially prolonging life constitutes “playing God” and removal or refusal of artificial life support does not. This is why John Paul II declined a feeding tube and why some religious groups might benefit from considering this individual case within the greater context of their general philosophies before vehemently opposing a “state acting as God.”

Then there is the oft-ignored discussion of Bush’s connection to life support. We all know that he and his brother pressed for the reinsertion of the feeding tube and that he even went so far as to sign abnormal legislation allowing federal courts to review a state issue – an incident that has raised more than a few eyebrows at the Supreme Court. What many remain unaware of is the legislation regarding artificial life support that Bush signed as governor of Texas. The fact that President Bush signed into law in Texas a bill – the Texas Futile Care Law – that gives health care providers the right to end human life according to local doctor judgment as well as patient inability to continue paying (see the case of Sun Hudson just a few weeks ago as well as that of Spiro Nikolouzos) is certainly important, especially given his decision to sign the Schiavo legislation and his rhetoric concerning a “presumption in favor of life.” It also makes it ironic that he would favor federal meddling into the right of states to make and enforce their legislation in this area.

And it is this federal meddling in what are legally defined as state affairs that has most startled otherwise indifferent spectators of the Schiavo episode. First of all, why is this the Congressional discourse on healthcare instead of the achievement of universal healthcare or even fair insurance benefits? Second, how can the US Congress possibly convene and pass laws relating specifically to one woman? Is that not a trite and ideological abuse of individuals’ powers as Senators and Representatives?

And finally, on what grounds did the government allow a state issue to suddenly be decided by federal courts simply because they disagreed with the state ruling? I don’t recall anyone even scurrying to provide the flimsy justification that I would have expected. This is, again, a usurpation of governmental powers and it is curious that a federal appeals court should even consent to hearing the case at all. Dangerous legal precedents were quietly set as this case made its way through the various courtroom proceedings, even though the initial ruling was never overturned.

It appears that things are not as over-simplified as they seemed …

Aaron Wodin-Schwartz is a Collegian columnist.