Terri Schiavo has now been without food for more than 10 days. When I think about this I wonder if I'd be able to survive that long with no nutrition or hydration. I have not felt the pains of hunger or thirst very often and when I have it was over a very small period of time.
Some people say that we humans are frail and in a way we are. Our skin can be broken fairly easily. We are often physically harmed by something as innocent as a piece of paper. We don't have a hard shell or dense fur to protect us from the outside world. Our bones can be fractured without too much effort or force.
Yet in another way the life of a human being is far from frail or fragile. The life of a human being who isn't dying is difficult to take without the use of force. The body of a human being who isn't dying naturally works to sustain itself for long periods of time when no sustenance has been provided. Terri Schiavo could be killed in a second with a gun or with a knife but killing her by removing food and water is a long journey. She has resolutely held onto life for a week and a half without food or water. How can anyone say that we are "letting her die" when she is alive more than 10 days after being denied food and water?
Myopic Zeal has a listing of the cast of characters involved in Terri Schiavo's case and treatment.
Here's an interesting article in Touchstone Mag by William Luse that compares Terri Schiavo's condition with the condition of Christopher Reeve before his death.
And so I'd like to return to the case of Christopher Reeve, which I find instructive, for I never saw any pained editorials in the press or heard any incredulous chorus of experts bemoaning the fact that he preferred living to dying.
In short, is Terri's inability to swallow the same thing as Reeve's inability to breathe? How does each situation differ from, or resemble, the other? The most obvious difference is that one is conscious, the other barely so (or so we are told). The most obvious similarity? One is kept alive by a tube that forced air into his lungs, the other by a tube that forces food into her digestive system. Are they in fact the same?
On the assumption that we already know the other side's answer, let me give mine: No, they are not. One is the loss of an involuntary function, the other of a voluntary function. One is thus a fatal condition, the other is not. Under normal circumstances, I cannot breathe for you, but I can feed you. Some will not admit this difference, but I don't see how it can be other than of the essence. If it is not, the argument on Terri's behalf is lost, and we must delay Michael's request no longer. Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube is no different from a spoon held to her lips, as to a baby's, and that's why I believe that the possibility that she might be taught to take food from a spoon is a matter of no relevance.
But I maintain that the better parallel is not between the two forms of technology, but between Reeve's nervous system and Terri's digestive system, the latter of which works while the former does not. By a fatal condition I mean one that will not suffer amelioration by treatment. Such a circumstance does not describe Terri's case. The tube indeed treats her condition quite well. Allowed food and hydration, she lives.
But, goes the counter-argument, allowed air, so does Reeve. The ventilator treats his condition quite well. Allowed air, he lives. His tube and hers both force an element necessary to survival into the patient's system. The accurate parallel is not that between his nervous system and her digestive system, but between the nervous systems of both, for it was damage to her nervous system that caused the inability to swallow.
And so far, I would say, so good, with one crucial difference: Take away Reeve's tube and he will at once stop breathing; take away Terri's, and her digestive system will not at once shut down. It will continue working until all the food is gone. In fact, it will begin to digest her own tissues until starvation is complete. Reeve's lungs would have no such residual activity.