Terri Schiavo, the State, and the Culture of Death

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I write this piece on Good Friday, one of the most important days of the Christian Calendar. Within a few days from now, Terri Schiavo will be dead because the courts have ordered that she be starved to death. Anyone who tries to intervene by giving her even a sip of water is arrested and led off in handcuffs. In the United States, starving a dog to death would result in arrest and imprisonment; starving a human being to death is state policy. (Yes, I know she is brain damaged, but she is not — as ABC News falsely reported in what can only be called a "push poll" — on life support.)

There is much that has been written and said about this case, but I would like to add some points that either are ignored or are presented in a way that obscures the larger issues. It is difficult to know where to begin, so I will simply say my piece.

In the latest mailing from Sojourners, the title "Life is a Gift from God" was the headline. Navely, I believed that the editors were weighing in upon the Schiavo case, and, indeed, they did such, but not in the way I thought would happen. Instead, Jim Wallis wrote in favor of abolishing the death penalty. (I will get to Sojourner’s coverage of the Schiavo situation later.)

At one level, I agree with Wallis, but on fundamentally different grounds. If one were to compare his piece to the eloquent appeal by Stephanie R. Murphy that recently appeared in LRC, it is not difficult to see who controls the moral high ground. This is the same Jim Wallis who had no problem supporting some of the most murderous regimes in world history, including the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia and Mao’s Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution. Those regimes used the death penalty as economic and social policy, but the slaughter of millions was seen by Wallis as a necessary cost of implementing his Holy Welfare State. Never once did Sojourners ever offer even a word of condemnation of what went on.

(Those escaping the murderous regime of Vietnam, however, did merit Wallis’ wrath. As I noted in an earlier piece on Wallis, those who risked their lives to flee simply were people who wanted to pursue the evil "consumer lifestyle.")

Yet, in a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, the State of Florida is imposing the death penalty upon a person. Now, we can argue the law, as has been done in many quarters, but we need to be clear that the state has mandated Terri Schiavo die of starvation. There is no other way to put it.

In writing about the Schiavo case, all Sojourners could say was that it was "controversial," and gave a very weak endorsement to feeding the poor woman. On the other hand, the magazine said that dying might not be so bad, either:

On the other hand, most Christians believe that the everyday miracle that is our body is not the sum total of our existence. Death, the inevitable surrender of the physical being, is in another way just a step in the life of faith.

In wondering why Wallis would give such a strong endorsement to ending the death penalty but only weakly defend Schiavo’s rights, I realized that Wallis’ constituency is hoping that she dies. For example, Sojourners touts the feminist line on nearly everything, and one finds that in this case, there is much irony.

While Schiavo’s parents have led the fight to keep Terri alive, the person who wants her dead is her husband, whose motives can be called suspect at best. Ordinarily, one would think that feminists would be enraged that a husband was calling such shots for his wife. After all, if a husband were trying to prevent his wife (or daughter) from having an abortion, he would be roundly attacked and most likely arrested.

(Indeed, a woman recently was arrested at an abortion clinic in Illinois when she tried to intervene after someone illegally snuck her 14-year-old daughter into the clinic. The clinic workers told the woman that "she has no rights." Had the girl been in a tattoo parlor or having her ears pierced, the women could have legally intervened. However, the U.S. Government has mandated that the killing of unborn children is sacrosanct to the point where nothing shall get in the way of someone’s desire for an abortion.)

The feminist constituency represented by Sojourners understands that the Schiavo case and abortion are closely linked. If they were to protest Michael Schiavo’s actions, then they would have to answer questions about abortion, so to protect their precious "right," Terri Schiavo must die.

Yet, there is something quite troubling with the arguments being presented by many who have tried to preserve Terri Schiavo’s life. Sojourners gleefully quoted leftist commentator Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio:

“The case is full of great ironies. A large part of Terri’s hospice costs are paid by Medicaid, a program that the administration and conservatives in Congress would sharply reduce. Some of her other expenses have been covered by the million-dollar proceeds of a malpractice suit — the kind of suit that President Bush has fought to scale back.”

(Schorr, of course, favors starving Schiavo to death — and favors the welfare state, too. Furthermore, the Bush Administration — despite what its critics on the left might say — is not an opponent of the welfare state and has expanded its reach during these past five years. Schorr simply was tossing out a red herring in order to justify what is happening.)

Wallis, whose recent book God’s Politics (an arrogant title, to say the least) declares that Christianity and the welfare state are one and the same, has no problem with using the welfare state to keep her alive — provided that is what her husband wants. However, the presence of the welfare state in this situation does present a number of very difficult issues, and if we are to discuss this case (as opposed to shout at each other), we have to include government assistance in the mix.

One person recently emailed me and indicated that since the government is paying the bills to keep Schiavo alive (that is, before the government decided to slowly kill her), then "whoever is paying the bills should call the shots." Like it or not, that is not an immoral statement. Indeed, by using tax dollars to feed and house Schiavo, the government has been using force, even if that force is disguised in humanitarian terms. By dumping her condition upon the welfare state, we de facto give the immoral state the right to make the moral choices it is incapable of making.

If the welfare state discussion is not enough, the criticism of the intervention of Congress into this fray has been roundly criticized in circles of left and right. Cindy Sheehan wonders about the rank hypocrisy of the Republicans wanting to save Terri Schiavo but being willing to condemn hundreds of thousands of people to death in Iraq. Jacob Hornberger rightly says that the Constitution — or at least the Constitution as it was written — does not legally permit Congress to have a role in this issue.

But there is something else that we miss in our defense of federalism. In his book Freedom in Chains, James Bovard writes that the purpose of federalism is not to see which branch of government is entitled to oppress its citizens. In the continuing criticism of President George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress, we forget that this issue has come to this point because the state courts in Florida have held themselves to be above the law.

Just as the critics of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision correctly state that the court overstepped its bounds, they generally fail to say that the Florida Supreme Court ran end runs around Florida’s election law in a desperate attempt to give the election to Al Gore. (The Florida court has six Democrats and one "independent," so please do not tell me that this is a non-partisan court interested only in pursuing the "rule of law." This court has earned its reputation as a rogue entity.)

In 2003, the Florida legislature attempted to intervene in the Schiavo case. Not surprisingly, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the action unconstitutional, stating itself to be the highest governmental authority in the state. Nowhere in the constitutions of the United States or Florida does it state that the courts are the highest authority, yet that is the case today, like it or not.

Thus, the Schiavo case, if nothing else, highlights nearly everything that is rotten in American governance. We see the rank hypocrisy by people on all sides, we see the imposition of the state and federal courts as the Ultimate Authority, and, in the end, and we stand around helplessly shouting at one another while a woman slips into death, it being illegal to give even the literal cup of cold water to her. The state mandates death, and no one does it better. Happy Easter.

March 26, 2005

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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