Monday, March 21, 2005

Voluntary and Involuntary Euthanasia: two worlds apart

Schiavo, in italian, means slave. Terry Schiavo, a lady who is in a persistent vegetative state, is the object of a political battle in the US over the desirability of euthanasia. Terry Schiavo is a modern slave. She has no control over her life. Her husband and her parents claim this control. On one hand, her husband wants her to die to stop her suffering. On the other, her parents want her alive; more precisely, they want her to be kept alive by a feedin tube.

The suggestion I want to make are not directly in favour of Mr Schiavo (the husband) or Mrs Schindler ( the mother). To be honest, I think that they both have something to say. Instead, I would like to dispel some basic confusion that surrounds the euthanasia domain. After clearing the ground, a clearer question as to Terri's sort will be asked.

A main distinction must be drawn between voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia. The former concerns the cases in which a person is capable to express an informed consent. The latter concerns the cases in which a person is not capable to express an informed consent. Between the two there is an ocean. Terri's case falls in the second category: she is unable to express her opinion as to her sort. Moreover, she has never even thought of being one day in a position of doing so. Thus, her will cannot be construed as allowing euthanasia or refusing it.

The federal court, which will probably hear the case, will have a very hard task: they will have to decide on a question concerning the quality of life. The question is whether a persistant vegetative state is worth living or not. Its worth could be measured in different ways, though none of them guarantees infallibility. Either it could be measured with a view to prospective medical breakthrough which will bring back Terri Schiavo to a non-vegetative state. Or, it could be measured in its own terms. Someone may argue that a persistant vegetative state is still a form of life that we fail to understand. But who lives it, can enjoy it.

Both roads seem to me hard to follow. A reasonable time has been given to Terri to wake up (15 years). Nothing happened. Theoretically, she could be maintained in life for 40 more years, unless she dies for another illness. Those who are suffering, or at least those who can understand the suffering of are the parents and the husband. They are living a tragedy and whichever way the court will decide, they will face a tragedy. Thus, the only thing we can do is to compare their tragedies and ask whether there is a lesser evil. Mr Schiavo is facing a 15 year long tragedy. He simply wants to write the last chapter of it, in order to go on and have a life as far as it is possible to do so. The final chapter will be the most painful arguably and yet pain, he probably thinks, will redeem all his suffering during the last 15 years. Possibly, an acute pain deriving from the actual death of Terri will also sweep away forthcoming long-term sufferings.

Terri's parents, at the opposite end of the spectrum, are facing the same 15 year long tragedy. But they believe they can still endure an x-number of years of mild sufferings in order to avoid the greatest pain that comes with the realisation of a person dear to you. They want to postpone death in the hope of a miracle. By claiming this, they also want to impose the long term suffering to Mr Schiavo.

I personally believe that, after reasonable attempts to save life (15 years of attempts), the only possible way out is to accept tragedy fully. Terri's death will be horrible for the husband and for the parents. But, death is a fundamental aspect of our lives. We, the living, must learn to accept it and to honour the sacrifice of unlucky humans, such as Terri Schiavo.

1 comment:

Raphaƫl Paour said...

I don't understand what, in your opinion, is Terri Schiavo's sacrifice.

It seems to me that you point out 3 different ways in which to answer the question that the Federal Court will be faced with: 1/ by relying on values (the quality of life), 2/ by using a utilitarian method (measuring the comparative amounts of pain suffered by the different members of the family), 3/ by using an aesthetic method (honouring the sacrifice of unlucky humans).

I may be making a mistake in thinking that you oppose the 3 options. But if I'm not, I find the third one hard to understand. I called it aesthetic for lack of a better term. I think that I just don't understand the argument.

Death is a fundamental thing in our lives and as it is inevitable we should deal with it. But I don't see what it has to do with the problem at hand. This person is not dead and accepting death doesn't mean we should kill people. The question is precisely should this person be killed. I would say yes but not because death is a natural and fundamental thing but because life, like that, is not worth living. I see how the value of life can guide to an answer that one finds acceptable but I don’t of what help the value of death can be.