Pass-the-Buck Benevolence

For those of you who forgot or are too young to remember, we here revisit the 1990 case of Terri Schiavo, the young Florida woman whose heart, due to a rare chemical imbalance, had suddenly stopped working. Thus deprived of oxygen, her brain suffered severe damage, and she lapsed into a deep coma. Repeated attempts were made to rehabilitate her but to no avail. Finally, her doctors declared her irreversibly brain-dead. She could breathe on her own, but to stay alive she had to be liquid-fed through a tube. After 10 years, seeing that her condition was hopeless, her husband and legal guardian obtained a court order to remove the feeding tube and allow her to die with dignity as, according to him, she would have wanted under the circumstances.

Terri’s parents, however, were appalled. They insisted that their daughter was not a total vegetable, that, in her own way, she could sense their love and through eye contact and facial expressions communicate with them. They sued to keep the feeding tube connected, and during the lengthy court proceedings that followed, political leaders, and social activists and talk-show hosts of all persuasion, got into the act, most on the side of the parents.

A bill was passed in Congress would allow a federal court to review the case. The House passed the bill on a 203-58 vote after calling lawmakers back for an emergency Sunday session. The Senate approved the bill by voice vote, and the newly- elected President George Bush signed off on it. Florida Governor Jeff Bush got the state legislation to pass a law, “Terri’s Law” (later declared un-Constitutional) prohibiting the removal of the feeding tube. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh argued that the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” clause in the Declaration of Independence made it clear that letting Terri die was both un-American and illegal. But in the end, the court upheld its decision and the tube was removed. Terri Schiavo died of starvation 13 days later. (Water was apparently administerd, otherwise she would not have lasted that long.)

At the risk of coming across as cynical, insensitive clods, some politicians and commentators raised questions that to this day have not been convincingly answered. Were the members of Congress, the President, the Florida Governor, and talk-show hosts so aggressively advocating for keeping alive a brain-dead woman whom they had never seen in person, were they really, humanly concerned about her well-being or were they using her to score points with religious sacredness-of-life voters? And if kept alive, would they be the ones who would foot the bill out of pocket for her round-the-clock care, or would they dump the burden on her insurance companies or the taxpayer? And if they did that for one person, wouldn’t they have to do the same for thousands of others like her throughout America, at a cost of billions of dollars, when it was obvious, even back in 2001, that the country was going broke? Ironically, the majority of those sanctity-of-life politicos and talk-show hosts touted themselves as fiscal conservatives, supported the death penalty, and had no qualms about sending our troops to kill and be killed in Afghanistan

Meanwhile, the so-called enlightened practice of reintegrating misfits and thugs into society went on as it had for decades, though it was noted, again by observers who risked coming across a cynical, insensitive clods, that the defense lawyers, social activists, and public school officials responsible resided for the most in well-protected neighborhoods and apartment buildings. The “society” into which they reintegrated the misfits and thugs in their charge were the poor and working class communities on the other side of the tracks. Out of sight, out of mind. Like the sanctity-of-life advocates in the Schiavo case, they scored their points, maybe eased their conscience a bit, but then dumped the burden on others. Fast forward to our day and note that nothing much has changed.

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