Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Would You Want to Live Like That?

“I would never want to live like that.” It’s a phrase we’ve heard repeatedly from people commenting on the Terri Schiavo case. And it’s a phrase that disturbs me.

First the disclaimers. No, I don’t think expressing such a sentiment makes you a bad person, nor do I think it aligns you by default with either side in the Schiavo case. I take it as an honest expression of horror at the thought that you might one day find yourself in such a condition. The reaction seems visceral, but honest.

Yet here’s my problem. I don’t see how someone can simultaneously hold such a belief and not devalue the lives of those who live in that condition. This is not the same as “demonizing” or “de-humanizing” such people. But it does suggest that they drop down the scale from whatever value you think your life has now, to whatever value you fear it would have in a condition like Terri Schiavo’s. And intentional or not, such a belief must affect your assessment of the value of those who actually are in that condition.

Without sinister intent, this can produce terrible results, as I think it has in the case of Terri Schiavo. If Terri was a walking, talking person as fully functional as she used to be, we would not be having this debate. No court would sanction, and the public would not allow, her husband to have her starved to death - even if she explicitly asked him for such a thing. Yet it has become clear that because she now lives in a state a vast majority of people have determined they themselves would not want to live in, the value proposition of her life has changed in the eyes of the public. Not in the eyes of every single person, but certainly in the eyes of enough to allow it to happen.

Let’s talk for a moment about the right to die. I have stated repeatedly that I would respect the expressed wishes of someone who wanted to die in a condition like Terri is in. I would respect it in the sense that I would not interfere. But I would still find it wrong.

I believe human life has a value the human mind can scarcely comprehend. I think it is far healthier to accept that concept than wait to be persuaded in every possible circumstance.

Two of the great moral teachers on this topic in my life have been Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II.

The former was a champion of the value of lives that were also considered of little value. Lives about which I’m sure many people would also say “I would never want to live like that.” Not only did she care about them, she lived among them. And to the end of her days there was no human life in any condition that she did not find valuable.

Pope John Paul II has been one of the great pro-life advocates of our time. Not only has he written eloquent encyclicals on the topic, like Evangelium Vitae, he has constantly and consistently spoke out on the topic throughout his pontificate. And now, at the end of his life, he offers himself as an example of finding life’s value and dignity in the midst of terrible illness and personal suffering.

Yet there are those who also find the pope’s life not worth living anymore. There have been calls - some subtle, some outspoken – that he should also be “allowed to die,” despite the massive evidence that he has no such wish. And, yes, there have even been statements suggesting the pope has a duty to die because of his current condition. I can’t help but find this directly related to those same statements we’re hearing by so many regarding Terri Schiavo, “I wouldn’t want to live like that.”

We all fear death. Many of us fear suffering even more. And it is apparent that to some there is an even greater fear of the loss of dignity. I think this is a misplaced view of dignity. Real dignity does not depend on the opinion of others. It's inherent in every human life. The greatest danger you could offer to your dignity is to lose sight of that fact.

To those who have expressed a desire to die if ever in a condition like Terri Schiavo, I might not be able to persuade you. But I can at least offer this opinion. I want you to want to live. I want you to see your life posessing a value and dignity that doesn't go away because of unfortunate circumstance. I think we'd have a better society if people recognized that kind of value first in their own lives.


Blogger Kate Marie said...

A magnificent post -- one that expresses ideas that I wish I had had the time to blog about this week. I have suspected, like you, that so many people who support Terri Schiavo's "right to die" begin with the declaration that they themselves "would never want to live like that" -- a declaration which assumes that such a life is not worth living, and thus that Terri Schiavo's life is not worth living.

I'm going to link to your post over at our blog.

5:35 PM  

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