Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog


Questions on Life and Death

As Terri Schiavo experiences the "euphoria" of starvation and dehydration (What a cheap high! Who knew? No need to shoot up heroin or smoke crack, just skip a few meals and ride that Magic Carpet!) those of us who are still allowed to live in this world ought to take a moment or two and discuss just exactly who decides who lives or dies, and what criteria, if any, should be used to make that decision.

First up on our dance card is the question, who gets to make the call? In the Schiavo case, the court made it pretty clear that, in the absence of contradicting evidence, like, say, a written, witnessed, and notarized document in triplicate saying "Please don't let my husband kill me," the spouse has the power of life and death over their partner.

Gives a whole new meaning to "Till death do us part!"

But what if there is no spouse? Who makes the call then? Well, if there's a Living Will that designates a Health Care Agent or Trustee, then all is well; we have somebody who will be responsible for making the tough calls. But what if like Terri, there is no Living Will, no Trustee? Who makes the call then?

Well in the absence of any close family or designated representative, our state courts are always happy to step in and take a keen interest in the well being of the terminally ill. Remember, these are the same state courts where the judge assigned to look out for Terri's best interests remarked how "irritating" it was that she wasn't dead yet. Kinda harsh, don't you think? But then again, this is a role a state agency can probably handle, since terminal patients are very rarely mobile, so the state can't lose them like they do foster children.

It would be embarrassing to lose a patient who was in a persistent vegetative state, don't you think?

OK, so we have those helpful folks from the government happy to help lookout for those who are unable to speak for themselves. Under what circumstance can the courts decide that the terminally ill should be allowed to starve to death?

Well, that's the tough question, isn't it? I mean, once you allocate to yourself the power of life and death, you really ought to exercise that power carefully and consistently right? There's shouldn't be anything capricious about the ability to end another human being's existence. It's a good thing our courts and judges are so dependable; they never make mistakes, or errors of judgment. And they’re so even handed. A prisoner in prison facing life with no possibility of parole quite accurately determines his life is no longer worth living and goes on a hunger strike. A judge then orders that he be force fed, so he cannot die.

I guess we don’t want him to die in prison until he dies in prison. (As a side note, isn’t it funny how the some of the same folks who want to kill babies before they’re born and kill the terminally ill before their time don’t want to kill criminals who damn well deserve to die?)

Anyway, I think we can all agree that when a person has flat lined that their functional life is over, right? No brain activity means no person; seems simple enough. And the brain is the seat of identity; the precedent has already been set over on the other end of life, birth. A baby isn't a baby until the head is delivered; that's the law, so it follows that once the brain is broken, the person is gone. Anything left is simply biochemical reflexes. Shut 'em down and let's go get in a quick 18 holes before dinner.

But what about cases where the patient hasn't flat lined? Say, the autonomic system is still functioning; the lungs breathe, the heart beats, the colon produces fecal matter, and the endocrine system continues to regulate bodily functions. The central nervous system may be closed for business, but the body is still ready to go. Do we condemn the unfortunate patient to a long life of torture, or do we, mercifully, kindly, and with great compassion, starve them to death?

I know it's a tough call, but when you decide to play God, that goes with the territory.

Fortunately, this call too has already been made, as we've seen recently. The body may be strong, but if the mind is gone, save a couple of kilowatts by pulling the plug. It's the compassionate, environmentally friendly thing to do.

But is it really? Despite the press reports of how wonderful dehydration and starvation really are, most of us are a bit squeamish when it comes to something resembling torture. Come to think of it, maybe that's the technique they should have used in Abu Ghraib. Don't take embarrassing pictures, just let the prisoners starve for a week or two. They'll be so euphoric, I'm sure they'd be happy to tell the interrogator everything he wanted to know. And since we all now know just how pleasant it is to starve, nobody could complain that we were being cruel!

But really, Americans are just too squeamish when it comes to killing. It's odd when you think about it; after all, all we hear about is how violent we are. Yet we're unable to recognize that when a life is no longer worth living, the merciful thing to do is end it quickly and painlessly. And if starvation were so euphoric, why would the hospice need to administer morphine to Terri? So, what we need to do next is stop shilly shallying around with this whole starvation thing and just give the poor patient a lethal injection. If we're gonna kill'em, do it quickly and efficiently; we could use the bed space.

Now comes the really fun part boys and girls. We've decided that a partial loss of brain function is worth a death sentence; just how partial do we want to go? Now, I don't want to fall afoul of Godwin's Law here, but there was a group of folks in Europe who did some work along these lines and again, while we can all agree that their solution was a trifle extreme, at least they made an effort to address the problem. So using their solution as an upper boundary, how low shall we go?

For myself, I wouldn't be happy living with, say, half the intelligence I have right now. And since I'm smarter than the average bear, let's bump that up to less than 60% for the average joe. So in my opinion, a 40% reduction in brain function might be grounds for a court order for euthanasia.

Look, I know it's difficult to pin a hard number on something like this, but the only alternative is to rule individually on each case, and that's just not the way the law works. We set precedents and the next judge follows them. That's why a judge has stacks of books in his office and a legal research team; because a case decided in 1947 about a boy and his horse knocking down an old lady on her way to the bingo parlor has a distinct bearing on whether or not a woman today lives or dies.

It's all about precedents, and how they are set. Just think about it; if each judge decided a case like this independent of other judges, you'd have little Mikie Schiavo wannabees moving from state to state searching for a judge who accepts the least amount of brain damage before ordering euthanasia. Heck, I could name some judges who would consider the act of voting Republican alone as definitive evidence of the need for a mercy killing.

Now I know what you're all thinking:

"Rich, this all sounds great, and I'm glad we're having this discussion, but you know it'll never happen. Those poor helpless people will have families who'll get lawyers and governor's and Presidents to step in and defend their rights. After all, this is America; we defend the weak and the voiceless, right?"

Yeah, that's what the Schindlers thought too.

See, here's the bottom line when it comes to politics and politicians; unless they happen to be registered Democrats residing in Cook County, Illinois, the dead/brain dead don't vote. Very few politicians are going to stake their political careers on helping a non-voter. To further insure the lack of political interference, any pol who tries to derail the euthanasia express is going to be tarred with the “American Taliban” brush, rendering him ineffectual as he tries to salvage his political career. But the most important reason is simply this; the majority of Americans agree with this. They think it is perfectly fine for a judge to say that this person’s life is not worth living, therefore they must die. So like I said when I started this piece, all that’s left now is to work out the details. Or as the old joke goes, “We’ve already settled what you are; now we’re just negotiating a price.”

No my friends, in this case, the lid has already been lifted and the only thing left inside this Pandora’s box is a nasty dose of the clap.
Posted by Rich
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