When does life have value?

mindAs many as 26 disabled-rights groups are protesting the decision to remove Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, according to Not Dead Yet. Democrat Senator Tom Harkin has joined the throng, as has Democrat presidential hopeful Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Contrary to the way the story is being framed, is isn’t just right-wing, Bible-thumping, theo-fascists who are concerned about Terri Schiavo. Right and left, a great many are worried about the implications this act of euthanasia might have for the weakest members of our society.

There always comes a time when death is imminent, when medical treatment is futile. Doctors cannot perform miracles. At such times, a compassionate society will make the patient as comfortable as possible while waiting for death.

The point of futility is a medical judgment, a scientific judgment based on a careful consideration of the art of medicine and its limitations.

Increasingly, in many more cases than just Terri Schiavo’s, doctors and ethicists are making philosophical judgments, “quality of life” judgments. They are saying, in effect, “I would not wish to live in such a condition.” They are suggesting that a particular set of disabilities can make life too difficult to bear.

I have read the 40-page report filed by Jay Wolfson, the third court-appointed lawyer-guardian for Terri Schiavo. Throughout the proceedings, the question the court asked and based its decisions on, was this: “Is there any significant likelihood that Terri Schiavo will improve?” That’s a rather amazing place to begin. The court presumed that if her diagnosis of PVS could be confirmed, her life would obviously be pointless.

Download the Wolfson report, in Adobe Acrobat PDF wolfson-report. It gives an accurate history of Terri Schiavo’s long illness and the various court proceedings.

To quote from p.20, “…the trial court concluded that no substantial evidence had been presented to indicate any promising treatment that might improve Teresa’s cognition.”

Many severely disabled persons find this rather frightening. They believe they are being put on the defensive, that society is losing its compassion. Life is no longer intrinsically valuable, but must be subjected to a cost/benefit analysis—not only financial, but psychological and spiritual as well.

Some have suggested that asking the question “What sort of life is worth living?” amounts to a form of bigotry. They resent the implications such a question carries with it.

Without realizing it, we have adopted John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian principles, an ethical system that makes usefulness the highest good. Actions or objects or people having little or no usefulness are less desirable than those that do. Utilitarianism is ultimately a subjective and ego-centric philosophy—in practice, it looks very much like social Darwinism.

Utilitarian ethicists in the Third Reich insisted that the disabled served no useful purpose. They created an efficient system for extermination that later proved useful for eliminating other “undesirables.” Modern utilitarian ethicists have suggested that infants are not fully human and might be legitimately put to death for no greater reason than that a parent regrets having had a child.

Contrast that with a summation of the Christian moral philosophy by Dr. Dallas Willard, the Christian apologist. In a lecture given at Ohio State University on the topic “What does it mean to be human?” Dr. Willard said this:

“The purpose of human life is to love and serve others, and to be loved and served by them.”

In a society guided by this philosophy, all are deemed to have a purpose, all are worthy of love and respect, all are worthy of accommodation and compassion, and all have the opportunity, no matter what their limitations, to contribute to the well-being of the rest of us. Even the most helpless, the Terri Schiavo’s, contribute by giving us the privilege of serving and loving them. They teach us compassion, gentleness, kindness and respect for life.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. A great many people are saying, “Terri cannot think. Her mind is gone. Therefore, Terri isn’t there.”

I’m not so certain. No autopsy has ever extracted the human soul from a lifeless body. The Scriptures claim that our soul is both eternal and unique. If we lose an arm, or our sight, or our hearing, our soul is unharmed, undiminished. What if we lose our minds? In other words, if we seem to lose what is most precious to us, our ability to think, do we cease to exist? Or are we still very much alive in the way that counts the most, in our connection to the eternal God who created us?

Thanks to PBS, we all know that the lions always prowl around the edges of the herd, picking off the young, the weak and the sick. Nature is brutally efficient about disposing of the infirm.

If we want to call ourselves civilized and enlightened, socialized and compassionate, surely it does us no credit to imitate The Nature Channel.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Thanks for a very good post. I like the Nature Channel conclusion, and am also worried that this has set in motion a legal bias (read that court bias) toward active euthanasia becoming normative in this nation.

  2. I’m a Jesse Kornbluth reader who was directed to this blog. It might surprise you to know that I agree with you about Terri Schiavo. I do not think her case was examined objectively. To date, and to my amateur health care clerical worker (30 years) knowledge, only a functional MRI can really determine brain activity in these kinds of cases where appearances are deceptive. To that same knowledge no MRI, either in real time or static, was ever performed on her. It is astonishing to me that no neurologist on either side requested such testing, which would have proven beyond a reasonable doubt if Terri had even animal-like activity in the emotion and language centers of her brain.

    I currently have two dogs with cancer. I have lost three other dogs before them. All of them were either totally beyond help or capable of expressing to me that it was time for them to leave this world. I suggest that the aforesaid MRI would have determined whether Terri was in the human equivalent of tail wagging and squeak capability, which would have been reason enough for me to keep her alive until she indicated otherwise. Needless to say any testing would have to be done with the feeding tube removed.

    I must respectfully degree with you about the Hudson case, however. I think a venue should have been found for keeping the baby comfortable until he died naturally, as he inevitably would have when his lungs no longer could function. In the hospital in which I worked for 13 years, the neonatal intensive care unit would foster sick babies of this degree until they died, months and sometimes even years later. Of course these kids all had insurance, so this is a blatant case of discrimination against the poor. An alternative would be for a nurse to help the mom care for the baby at home. Would I pay taxes to encourage this sort of thing? You betcha.

    I like your writing and will be a regular reader.

    yours very sincerely,

    Rev. Shi Fogueira Zheng Dao

  3. Reverend Ignatius Teevee says

    With thousands of people dying every day, why does this one stir up so much agita in the public? Could it be that we’re being played like fiddles by the corporate media?

    The woman has been dead for 15 years. The “medical experts” who hold out hope thatthe sack of jelly in her head would one day congeal into a functioning brain are ultimately as foolish as the sheeple who bleat about this “crime” while poor people are denied truly life-saving health care.

    Let’s be real – keeping the tube in would have kept her body involuntarily (and I mean against HER wishes, as ruled again and again and again by the courts) animated, but it would not have kept her “alive” any more than leaving out a piece of bread keeps a mold “alive.”

    “Life” at any cost?

    The priorities of the “Life at any cost” movement either need to broaden their focus and see that there are actually salvageable humans being treated as garbage by insurance companies and hospitals. They need to broaden their focus and see that the very “culture of life” proponents whose praises they bleat are killing uninsured brown people on the other side of the world.

    Why is that death holy and this death a crime?

  4. laughingman says

    I respect the way you frame your argument, but Terry Schiavo was not “disabled” in the way that someone with C.P, M.S., or ventilator-dependent quadraplegia is. There is a reason she was in a hospice-she was terminally brain injured, in a “persistent vegetative state” according to the doctors who examined her at the court’s request.

    Do you really understand that term? “Vegetative” means exactly that: your body responds to certain external stimuli (changes in light, etc.) by the reflex actions controlled by the brain stem. No higher-order functions, just reflex actions as compicated as those in a sunflower.

    I’ve lived with and worked with severely disabled folk for the last five years. I’ve lost three of them in the last 12 months: two to cancer and one to suicide. The disabled community does not speak with one voice on this issue: every one that I know has condemned the parents and Congress for their selfishness and grandstanding.

    Charlie, you make very clever logical arguments about the “soul” and “utility,” but only to dance around the real point. If Terry’s soul was in her body, a body which had no awareness or control over itself for the last fifteen years, is it a greater crime to free that soul or keep it chained to its flesh? I think it is ghoulish to even consider the latter option.

  5. Thanks for your comments. You may be correct in your diagnosis of PVS for Terri, but we’ll never know. Despite the expert analysis, diagnosing PVS without a PET scan is tough, and there are a number of neurologists who doubt the diagnosis in this case. Even the court appointed doctors acknowledged that she had lived much longer than is common for a PVS patient, and she exhibited behaviors and responses that could be read either way — as mere reflex, or as genuine conscious response.

    There’s a sense in which all of us are “chained” to our bodies even when we are healthy. I believe in Heaven and in a living God whom I will go to meet. Logically, if I were to commit suicide, or mass homicide, would not all of my victims be “better off” in some ultimate sense?

    My point with the discussion of the soul is to say an emphatic NO, that even in a situation where a person is apparently chained (an expression that projects your own revulsion onto Terri, since we can’t know how she felt about whatever life she was living and whether she felt anything, much less “chained”), God has ultimate purposes for life, and a respect for life means that we forcefully deprive a person of it only with great hesitation.

    But you see that I’m arguing a metaphysical perspective, that life, even a very difficult life, has an ultimate purpose. Those who disagree would naturally be inclined to take the path of least current suffering.

    As for people with disabilities, I don’t speak for them, but the group “Not Dead Yet” does, and they claimed large support among their members for their protests against Terri’s euthanasia.

    These sorts of discussions are good, because none of us should ever be completely certain that he/she has grasped the Truth. I hear what you’re saying and I appreciate your comments.

  6. laughingman says

    I very much like the discussion around this board. Thanks for listening with an open ear.

    So you can understand a little of my thinking: I think that although much of human condition is suffering, I do not believe that it is our purpose here to suffer. I’m not sure I have anything else to add, so I will end here.

Comment Policy:  All comments are subject to moderation. Your words are your own, but AnotherThink is mine, so I reserve the right to censor language that is uncouth or derogatory. No anonymous comments will be published, but if you include your real name and email address (kept private), you can say pretty much whatever is on your mind. I look forward to hearing from you.

Leave a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.