(Remember Your Servants, O Lord)
Sunday, March 27, 2005
The Law - is it dead yet?
While Terri's parents said one thing after their visit on Saturday - that "her lips were bleeding, her skin was peeling and that she appeared in discomfort..."; that, in fact, Terri "resembled an Auschwitz survivor, her cheeks sunken and her lips desiccated by dehydration..." - George Felos said something else:
"He disagreed with charges made by Schiavo's parents" "...he had been to see Terri earlier that day, and she was 'calm, peaceful, resting comfortably.' In fact, he said, she looked 'beautiful' and that in the eight years he has been working on the case, he had never seen her have such 'a look of peace and beauty'."
Disagree? I could see how he might flatly deny it, but disagree? I guess whether one resembles an Auschwitz survivor is one of those things, like beauty, that exists only in the eye of the beholder. But, more importantly, I am captured by (though not smitten with) Felos' use of language funereally resonant with a religious imagery that would make a mortician blush. "Comfortable, resting, peaceful, and beautiful." Almost beatific, isn't it? Soon and very soon, We are going to see the King... Next thing you know we'll see the Hemlock Society indulging a penchant for hagiography, issuing little holy cards with Terri's picture on them, halo round her head. I wonder which picture they'll use: one taken before her passage into PVS, or after? Since so much today relies on image, it would be a tough marketing call. On the back there will be some words about how her cause for secular canonization was put through with unusual alacrity for the reason that, like any martyr, she willingly embraced death in the face of a malicious and fanatical enemy, one that would have...kept her alive, protected her, nourished her in her weakness, embraced her in her helplessness, cherished her innocence, held sacrosanct her simplicity, and given voice to an apparently incomprehensible fact: that this is a living human being.
It was not Terri's destination that Felos was eulogizing. It was the process of getting there, the dying itself as an object of adoration, the deification of death. As far as one can tell, the beatitude of dying was the destination. I haven't heard Felos making pleas to the effect that it was time to "Let her go now to rest in the arms of her Eternal Father." Maybe he has; I just haven't heard them. Has anyone even bothered to ask him if he believes in God? I suppose he would respond that it's irrelevant, the only issue at hand one of "rights," the right to die naturally and with dignity. If there is a God, He would want this; if there is not, then it doesn't matter anyway. The law cannot read the mind of God, and should not be asked to. If it is, one notion of the Divine Will must be set against, and imposed upon, another. Some decisions we must be brave enough to make on our own, without recourse to a possibly transcendant but ultimately unknowable Truth. After all, as the question has been memorably put, and echoed down the ages: What is Truth?
This is precisely the question Justice Blackmun asked, and could not answer, in Roe v. Wade. Christians think they know the answer: that every human life from conception to death possesses an inviolable and God-given right to the integrity of its own being; that Terri's current condition is no more inherently "undignified" than George Felos'; that an unborn baby or a person in a persistent vegetative state has as much right to continue in existence as George Felos does in his minimally conscious one. This is the Truth that the philosophizing in Roe v. Wade will not admit, and which allows the state of Florida - following the path cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cruzan - to include the PVS as a terminal stage of life. As with those who inhabit the womb, we cannot be sure that this is really a life.
But why, then - one might ask - wouldn't the law fall back on a current cliché and "err on the side of life?" Why, when confronted with uncertainty, wouldn't it counsel caution, that no evil be done?
Some would say that the Blackmuns and Feloses of this world are not truly in the grip of uncertainty, but of the conviction that an evil is being done: one which, in one case, forces a woman to live in a horribly debilitated condition, and in the other would force her to bear for nine months, and give birth to, a questionable entity that is, shall we say, crowding her space.
But it's really much worse than that. When the law of man unhinges itself from any dependence upon a notion of what might accord with the law of God, from any deference to the verities of a revered Tradition (revered for the very reason that we believe its founding principles to be divine in origin), what is left to it? (Wherewith will it be salted?) I'll tell you - in those areas where doubt prevails, one of two things is left to it : either totalitarianism (in which the state substitutes its own wisdom for the Tradtion's), or the moral anarchy of libertarian, individual autonomy and its consequent, revolutionary promulgation of human "rights" where none existed before. The result? A Terri Schiavo might leave behind instructions to have her tube pulled, or to have it left alone. Either is acceptable. One is not morally superior to the other (in spite of the preening disdain a Felos might cast upon you should you choose to treat your relative as Terri's parents treated her). What is of the essence is that the decision was yours. The only morality lies not in what you chose, but in the fact that you chose at all. You get to make it up as suits your individual tradition, whether that be Christian or nothing at all. In law, this concept must be endowed with the fanatical force of a sort of biblical secularism: judge not, lest ye be brought before the bar (or Congress, like Supreme Court nominees) and asked: What is Truth? You'd best not have an anwer, unless you're willing to reply that the only answer is a question.
In this condition, the law has entered a state similar to that of George Felos, and which some of Terri's defenders would have attributed to her - that of minimal consciousness, or, better yet (to err on the side of optimism), a "locked-in" state, one in which the law is aware of the environment that gave it birth, but finds itself unable to respond in a way that its parents would recognize.
Thanks for the diagnosis, some will say, I've heard it before. Sounds like you want to get God back into the constitution, the Ten Commandments into the courthouse.
Awful to contemplate, isn't it? It reminds me of the film A Man For All Seasons, when, early on, Cardinal Wolsey asks cynically of More if he wouldn't like to see the kingdom governed by prayer. And More says, "I would." How admirably forthright, how quaintly reactionary, how pathetically and despicably in violation of everything our modern state stands for. More's vision is a horror.
More precisely, I'd like to see the sacredness of every life, no matter its state in that life, enshrined in American law. I'd like to see severely disabled people taken off the list of those eligible for murder. I'd like to see those helpless ones who have been cast into the legal outer darkness readmitted to the human family. I don't care about the Ten Commandments in the courthouse unless their presence presages that very thing. A religious gesture (like Howard Dean quoting scripture, or George Bush saying "complex", or George Felos describing the "beauty" of a dying woman) can be as empty as any other. But it seems to me we ought to be able to go about it without seating priests on the Supreme Court or making Ratzinger Secretary of State.
But how? Sorry, this is where I fade into ambiguity, and rest like the two George's on tired and trite observations, for I only know what I see: that, as in the larger war, the battle this past week was fought between the forces of darkness and light, of nihilism and belief, of hopelessness and hope; between those who believe in miracles and those who, if they do believe, consider them irrelevant; between those who believe in the Light of the World and those who would blow it out. There are indeed many Christians, an uncomfortable number, who willingly abandoned Terri Schiavo to her captors (I use the word with no sense of irony), but theirs is a Christianity cut off from its past, disinterred from the graveyard of its ancestors, from the tomb of its Tradition, which is the spiritual bloodline tracing back to Christ Himself. It is a Christianity that would serve two masters and, though doomed to perish, it is the variation that has carried the day. That it is a war cannot really be any plainer. Some would prefer to think of it as primarily a spiritual war - and it is, so far - but for Terri Schiavo it has had a tragically temporal consequence.
It is a war, and it would be well to keep in mind that "we" - you know who you are - are losing.