Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Wrestling with Schiavo Questions

Will Spotts has a thought-provoking post today: The Anti-Gospel of Terri Schiavo. The quick shift in public attention from the Schiavo case to the death of the Pope and imminent election of a new Pope is troubling. Will the issues that were raised by death of Terri Schiavo fade away until the next time a family dispute over end-of-life decisions lands in the court system? Uncomfortable questions like what quality of life should be sustained by medical means, for how long and who gets to decide are waiting to be resolved. They will surely resurface in another situation before too long.

Spotts questions the assumption that advance directives are the answer to the problems seen in the Terri Schiavo case. This is a concern that I share. Some of the questions that are not being asked by those pundits who emphasize the importance of these documents are: If you were to write a Living Will or discuss with your family your wishes, how long would you tell them you wanted to be sustained by a feeding tube (assuming that there is no other artificial life support) before it should be removed? What is an acceptable quality of life that you would want sustained? And how could you possibly know before you were in that situation what your wishes would be? Of course the problem is that you might not be able to communicate them. That's what happened to Terri Schiavo.

Modern medicine has produced many techniques that allow life to be sustained almost indefinitely under certain conditions where just a few decades ago that life would have naturally expired. Most of these techniques were developed to assist patients over a critical stage in their recovery and are meant to be removed when the patient is well enough to survive without them. However the threat of malpractice suits have caused doctors and hospitals to use every possible medical means to sustain life in situations where there is no hope of recovery and a life independent from these devices.

In my previous life as an attorney, I learned that even when people try to express their wishes clearly in a legal document, lawsuits will follow if their relatives, business associates or anyone else remotely affected don't like it. That's what keeps the legal profession in business.

What is a useful life? It is not surprising that many advocates for the mentally and physcially disabled have been profoundly disturbed by the implications of the Terri Schiavo case. Although the courts repeatedly ruled that she had said before her illness that she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means, these advocates are disturbed because common sense tells us that she could not possibly anticipate the condition she was left in after her stroke.

On the other hand, as Christians we believe that death is not the end, but that the soul goes on to God. A wise older man in our congregation told me many years ago that there are a lot of things worse than death. To many, Terri Schiavo's condition seemed like one of those things. To others, it wasn't. What is it to you and me? I wrestle with the answer.

1 comment:

PCUSA Elder said...

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