Morality circus

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

As the “culture of life” morality circus rolls noisily through the halls of government, I can only hope it’s all political show, not a serious attempt to inflict fundamentalist “compassion” on the dying.

I say this fervently wishing the best for Terri Schiavo, who will never know the uproar she has caused. The best, almost certainly, is death with dignity, loved ones at her side, holding her hand as she slips away. This may never be possible. The severely brain-damaged woman has become, in essence, a 41-year-old fetus, umbilically attached to the state, kept alive to make a lot of people feel righteous and maybe save the political career of Tom Delay while she’s at it.

“One thing that God has brought us is Terri Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America,” the ethically challenged Delay told a Christian group last week, referring to attempts by liberals “to defeat the conservative movement.”

Oh God, if thou art merciful, keep them away from our laws and our rights.

It sickens me on many levels to listen to these hypocrites from the party of war, torture and the shredded social safety net blather about the sanctity of life and the protection of those “who live at the mercy of others.” This is serious talk. To hear such words in the mouths of those who don’t mean them damages the integrity of the language.

But it’s far scarier to hear such words bandied about by those who do mean them. They’re the ones who could come after the dying with Bibles, feeding tubes and cockeyed compassion.

We’ve come to our senses about the limits of medical technology in the last few decades, thanks to a few celebrated court cases (e.g., Karen Ann Quinlan in 1975) and the rise of the hospice movement. Most of us grasp the absurdity and ghastliness of mechanically prolonging the life of someone who is brain dead or interrupting a person’s dying process over and over with “heroic” intervention just because doing so is medically possible. We have a right to say no.

And indeed, saying no is simple and natural, an acceptance of the course of things. When my mother, a good Christian woman, began going in and out of cardiac arrest as a result of congestive heart failure, the very first note she scrawled to us in her hospital bed was, “Please let me die in peace.” Dying was not a terror to her; the possibility of not being allowed to die when her time came, however, was.

And when it is time, the body begins shutting down. To read about the dying process is to understand that withdrawal from food and water is part of it; force-feeding a dying person to prolong life meaninglessly or, God forbid, impose a religious teaching (or a hastily written bill signed by the president in his pajamas) is very likely a form of torture.

Therefore, I take serious issue with both the political and religious motivations behind the efforts to artificially prolong Terri Schiavo’s life and countermand her husband’s wishes.

Seven years ago, my wife died of pancreatic cancer. I sat silently beside her in the last hour of her life and witnessed the transforming miracle of death. The pain furrows on her face loosened as she let go. She became beautiful and radiant. Her breathing grew shallow and slowly, gradually ceased.

The peace of her death eased my grief immeasurably. I cannot comprehend either the religion or the politics that would disturb this peace.

Catholic Church leaders, stating the Church’s position on the Schiavo matter in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, asked: “Who can judge the dignity and sacredness of the life of a human being, made in the image and likeness of God? Who can decide to pull the plug as if we were talking about a broken or out-of-order household appliance?”

What an odd statement — what an odd alliance it implies between the Church and 21st century technology. “Pulling the plug,” that flip pop-culture vulgarism, becomes, in this statement, the unnatural act, as though our natural state is to be hooked up to a feeding or breathing machine. I would say, in putting it that way, the Church itself has profaned “the dignity and sacredness of the life of a human being.”

Turn that question around. Who can decide to insert the plug in the first place? Well, that’s the job of the morality circus, and when it comes to town, nothing is sacred.