First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Whose Life Is Worth Living?
It wasn't that many years ago when I happened to be in Raleigh at a gathering of literary folk who were quite full of their own superiority. They started talking about people who (gasp!) let years go by without reading a single book.
"Why do they even bother being alive?" asked one of them. Almost everyone laughed.
They went on and on about the worthlessness of the lives of non-intellectuals. Shopping in malls. Eating at McDonald's. Driving their gas-guzzling cars.
I did ask where they shopped, and which of them had arrived at the party by balloon. I have not been invited to such gatherings since.
It's so easy to decide that someone else's life is not worth living. Lacking something that we regard as essential, we cannot fathom how they get through a day.
The nattering of intellectuals about the valuelessness of the "unexamined life" might be taken as hyperbole, if it weren't for the fact that it is precisely our intellectual elite that has decided to set itself up as champions of the right to murder people "for their own good."
We saw how intellectuals treat the issue in this year's Oscar-winning deathwish movie, Million Dollar Baby. By now everyone knows that at the end, Hilary Swank lies in a bed, paralyzed from the neck down. Because of bedsores, one leg is amputated.
So, in despair, she begs Clint Eastwood to kill her.
And when he won't, she tries to kill herself by biting off her own tongue.
At last he succumbs, becomes a murderer for her sake, and walks away as the audience weeps at the nobility of his sacrifice.
Hardly. Just think -- now he won't have to visit her every day in the hospital. No more time spent trying to talk her into staying alive.
Let's see ...
What was her character suffering that Christopher Reeve didn't suffer?
How dare I make such a comparison! Christopher Reeve didn't ask people to kill him. He was a different person and made a different choice!
No, he wasn't merely a different person.
The difference is that he was a person, and she wasn't.
Hillary Swank's character was made up. She did what the author decided she should do. So after we see her grimly determined to overcome all obstacles, unwilling to be discouraged, adapting to whatever circumstances try to thwart her, suddenly the author decides that this time she'll give up and start demanding that the people who love her most surrender their sense of decency and goodness in order to indulge her despair.
Do you think Christopher Reeve didn't feel despair? He said so, in various interviews; there were even times he wished he were dead; but the love and encouragement of his family and friends gave him new purpose.
Plus, there's that little thing called "adaptation."
People get used to things.
In one experiment, people were fitted with lenses that turned everything upside down while shutting out any view of the right-side-up world.
In a surprisingly short time, their brains did a flip-flop and turned the upside-down-image right side up again.
In concentration camps, some people do indeed despair. It's a well-known phenomenon: They turn their faces to the wall and take no interest in the world around them until they die -- often very quickly.
Unloved, untouched babies also wither, losing brain function, becoming engulfed by lethargy, and sometimes simply dying.
But most people, given anything to hold on to, adapt and try. They find new purpose. They find work-arounds.
The quadriplegics who learn to paint with a brush held between their teeth.
I suppose, though, that we should have simply killed them as soon as the incurability of their problems became obvious. After all, what "quality of life" could they possibly have?
People make their own quality of life. There are people who are desperately unhappy in the midst of freedom and plenty, and people who are quite cheerful despite devastating deprivation and loss.
My wife was once at a gathering of church women, when one of them started complaining about how desperately hard it was to choose just the right dining room set for her new home.
She seemed genuinely distressed. And the other ladies commiserated. But my wife knew that one of the women was suffering through the breakup of her marriage, and another was worried because her husband was probably going to be laid off. Every one of them had problems that made choosing a dining room set almost laughably trivial.
But to that one woman, the dining room problem was the worst thing in her life. It's as if she had a certain amount of misery she was determined to feel, and settled on whatever came to hand to be miserable about.
While other women in that same room turned their problems and suffering outward, and took their mind off their problems by either working to overcome them or, if they were insuperable, simply doing whatever was within their power to make the people around them a little happier.
The result was that they were happier themselves.
So whose quality of life was better?
Whose life was more worth living?
Nobody would suggest euthanizing a person because she's suffering so terribly about choosing a table and chairs.
No, we're still slightly careful about whom we can kill and then feel noble about it.
For instance, we now live in a country where you can kill your wife, as long as she's tragically brain-damaged, lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak.
She does open her eyes, though. And she can track objects that move across her field of vision. She isn't in a coma.
She even has people who want to take care of her. Her parents, her siblings.
And pay no attention to the "experts" who say that these apparent signs of intelligent life aren't real. We once had an "expert" make the same sort of declaration about our son Charlie, after a mere half hour of observation, completely discounting the experience of Charlie's parents and other caretakers who knew perfectly well that he really communicated with us.
The expert's assumption was that anything seen through the eyes of people who loved Charlie was to be discounted completely. Ironically, though, it is precisely the people whose attention is concentrated by love who are best equipped to judge whether communication is happening -- since it is happening with them.
The people who love Terri Schiavo apparently do not include her husband, who seems awfully impatient to get rid of her.
And under our bizarre laws, he has the only vote, and her parents and brothers and sisters are completely disregarded.
What is the husband's case for killing her?
It couldn't possibly be because he wants to be able to marry the woman he's living with now. After all, to accomplish that he need only divorce the brain-damaged woman in a hospital bed.
Oh, but wait. If he divorces her, then he won't get as much of that million-dollar settlement that's paying for her care right now. Only if she dies will he get any of that.
No, his motive is completely noble and unselfish. He wants to shut off her feeding tube because she "wouldn't have wanted to live like this."
Hmmmm. Convenient that she can't speak, isn't it?
The incredible thing -- to me, at least, and yet I have to believe it, don't I -- is that he was able to find a judge who would give him the right to kill this woman.
Despite the fact that she has loved ones who are desperate to keep her alive and take responsibility for her care. Despite the fact that the husband's motives are suspect at best. Somehow, judges in Florida keep finding a "right to kill" hidden somewhere in the law.
Well, we have a precedent for that, don't we. When it comes to legalized killing, our judges are way ahead of our legislatures ...
Once you plunge out onto that slippery slope of allowing the killing of another human organism for no better reason than personal convenience, it's so hard to find a handhold to let you climb back up.
Yet it's the proponents of legalized killing who whine about the "slippery slope."
Are there times when it is justified to take a human life?
I believe so -- and so do most people. Self-defense, defense of the helpless and innocent, aborting a baby to save the life of the mother; there's almost always a trade-off, choosing one life over another.
In fact, under traditional law, there is more of a case for killing Terry Schiavo's husband in order to save her from him than there is for killing the brain-damaged woman in the first place.
Whenever somebody wants to kill someone else, he will find excuses to justify the act. Most often, he will claim that his would-be victim is "not really human," not a person.
It is precisely because of this human tendency that a decent society must go to extra effort, must draw the line firmly at a much earlier point, in order to prevent the killing of innocents. Especially those who are utterly incapable of speaking for themselves.
Inability to plead for your life should not be sufficient grounds for killing you.
If this woman can be murdered, with the active help of the courts that granted permission and blocked legislators from changing the law, then who is safe?
I suppose that my son Charlie Ben, who spoke very few words in his life and could not sit or stand or feed himself for all seventeen of his years -- I suppose that under this new system of killing "for their own good," I, as his parent, could have decided to stop feeding him and let him die.
But no. Isn't this odd? Just because we were able to use a spoon and a tippy-cup to get food into his body, it would have been criminal negligence and I would have been convicted -- rightly -- of murder.
Fortunately, such an act never crossed my mind during his lifetime, and, if it had, would have been met with shame and loathing. So he had all seventeen of the years his body gave him. He was often happy, but sometimes sad and frustrated. He was cut off from certain kinds of relationships, yet he managed to bring joy and understanding to many people whose lives he touched.
Most emphatically, it was a life worth living.
And this poor woman -- even if the only thing she can "do" is receive the loving service of her family, who is to say that this is not sufficient reason for her life to continue?
Even if her survival is only a testament to the importance of life in our society, is that not a good reason for her to stay alive?
We cannot get inside the head of someone else even when they can speak. So to take the life of someone based on speculation about what they "would have wanted" is arrogant at best, monstrous at worst.
So what if she might have said at one time, "I wouldn't want to live like that"? She was only speculating herself at that time, guessing at how she would feel.
How many times have you ever said, "If that ever happens to me, then I hope you'll just kill me"?
Even people suffering from such dark depression that they say they want to die -- who is to say that at some later time they might have a completely different desire? But once they're dead, they can't change their mind.
We can't prevent death indefinitely -- it comes to everyone in the end. Sometimes it comes to those who are tragically young, as a murderer steals them from their beds, or a tsunami sweeps them out of their homes, or some enemy hacks them to death because they're of the wrong tribe ... terrible things happen.
But when we can preserve a life, how dare we not do our best to do so?
Not just for the sake of that particular life, but for the sake of all the others who will be murdered once we open the floodgates and allow selfish people to kill those helpless ones who inconvenience them.
Once we accept the premise that it's permissible -- or even noble -- to kill the helpless, then where do we draw the line?
If a civilization ceases protecting the weak and innocent from the strong and selfish, then what, precisely, is civilization for?
Imagine a woman who had an abortion but also had a couple of children who lived. What would we think of her if she ever said -- or thought -- "I only wish I'd aborted the others"?
We know exactly what we think of people who murder children -- their own or other people's.
How is Terry Schiavo not eligible for the special protection we give to children? Just because it's an injury that makes her as helpless as a newborn; just because she doesn't seem to have the potential of "growing out of it"; how dare we let her be murdered -- and call ourselves civilized?
And if the judiciary actively conspires in the murder of such innocents, who will protect them then?
There are people whose lives are not worth living -- or at least do not justify to society at large the trouble of keeping them alive. The murderers and torturers and ravishers of children, for instance -- to protect innocents from them, a decent society might well choose to save all their future victims by killing the conscienceless perpetrator.
Yet because life is so precious, decent people are loath to use the death penalty, because it's possible for the prosecutors to be wrong. Better to keep a thousand perpetrators of evil alive than to suffer one to be executed innocently.
But those who have harmed no one, whose only offense is to remain alive while being helpless, we can kill them.
We have forgotten how to be appropriately outraged. We can see people frothing at the mouth both for and against a promiscuous President, we can see people furious that others eat meat or wear fur or drill for oil in frozen wastelands -- but starve a lone and helpless woman in the hospital, and ... where is the rage at such a wrong?
We talk about how terrible it is, and then shrug and say, "But what can I do?"
Why do we let the hypothetical trump the real?
We do it with our current abortion law: In order to save hypothetical women who might die from illegal back-alley abortions, we allow the killing of millions of separate human organisms for no better reason than their erstwhile parents' convenience.
Likewise, because Terry Schiavo might hypothetically prefer death to her current state, we seem poised to allow the very real woman to be starved to death despite the desperate concern of her family who want her to be kept alive.
It is death that trumps life in this twisted, sick, upside down version of America we live in now.
Thus evil wins over and corrupts a whole society, because by our silence or inaction, our selfishness or laziness, we conspire in the slaughter of the innocents.
What is our quality of life, as a civilization, when this is what we tolerate?
Miss Liberty's promise is false after all. Send us no more "huddled masses yearning to breathe." There is no such right in our country anymore, and no one left to protect it.
We have nothing to teach the world if we let this murder be carried out before our eyes, with the consent of our judges.
If only Terry Schiavo had been convicted of some crime. Then the governor could stay her execution.
If she starves to death, something dies in all of us; and not a small thing, either, unless we have made it small by our lack of compassion for the helpless.
Let's act on an old slogan that promotes life: "Love conquers all."
It is not love of any kind that arrogantly says, "Better to be dead than live like that."
My answer is, Better to be stupid than to be so "smart" you think you have the right to judge an innocent life as not worth living, just because you wouldn't wish to live it yourself.
Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.
When Is a Husband Entitled to Speak for His Wife? - by John Hansen
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