Monday, April 04, 2005

Hits and Misses from Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan (him, again, but this article makes some good points) has a new column out in the Sunday Times. Like any really good argument, I am ambivalent about its points.

I'll start with the negative. Sullivan writes:

But the question remains: was Schiavo killed or allowed to die? It seems to me that the absolutists in both camps miss something important. Those who argue that she was in effect already dead miss what is best described as the dignity of the human person — even when incapacitated. What makes someone human is not the extent of their capacities but their humanness itself. While a human being breathes on her own and her bodily functions remain largely intact despite massive degeneration in the brain, she is still a human being. Moral sense tells us so.

My problem with this formulation is that whatever moral sense is being triggered is only triggered by our senses. You can watch someone breath or feel their pulse, but there is very little one can do to tell if the mind (or, for the sake of this post, the soul) is still present. Back in the ages before EEG, these were pretty fool-proof ways of telling if someone was alive or not. The mind wouldn't last long in a body without pulse or respiration, and a body could not be maintained for long without a few reflexive abilities, such as swallowing, being provided by a semi-functional brain.

Now, however, we have the technology to sustain a body without the mind. The failure of death of body to follow by death of mind can make the old signs deceptive. The definition of death is no longer clear cut as it pertains to the important part, the mind. Granted, there were plenty of EEG's done in the Schiavo case, but those type of arcane measurements are easy to set aside in favor of the "clear cut" evidence of her taking breath. Because it is difficult to see the mind as gone and easy to see breathing or feel a pulse, many people fall into a fallacy that says that which can be sensed is more real than that which can not. I will give Andrew credit when he says later in the article that some people are driven to the certainty of faith when confronted with the uncertainties of science. I find it ironic that those who place their faith in the unseen fight for causes that depend on the evidence that is easily seen.

Props to Sullivan for seeking a third way between the absolutes on both sides:

Is there therefore a middle way, a means to negotiate these issues that technology now forces us to confront, a way to balance both these truths about a dying person and treat her with dignity and respect? There is.

He procedes onto an argument based on Catholic teachings regarding "ordinary" and "extraordinary".

He also uses an example of abortion to illustrate middle ground:

Even today we accept that a fertile procreating woman spontaneously aborts countless fertilised eggs after conception. That does not make her guilty of involuntary manslaughter on a massive scale. So the abortion of a foetus the morning after conception is intuitively different from an abortion in the third trimester.

He doesn't say it, but I think the essence of the distinction is active vs. passive. There are many things that we accept if no concious action is taken to cause them while we would be deeply troubled by them when they are carried out actively.

Hypothetical: Transpose the legal and moral arguments of the Terri Schiavo case back fifteen years when the feeding tube had not yet been put in for the first time. Now, the use of artificial means to extend her life is the active while allowing her to expire through dehydration is the passive. One could still make the argument that not feeding her would have been murder, but that decision would not require an active process to cause the end of life. I do not think that the matter would have caused as much of a firestorm, even given the lack of lead-up that the media would have had as opposed to the actual incident.

1 comment:

Unknown depths said...

you're missing the CRITICAL distinction:

nothing can die or be killed that wasn't first ALIVE

If she wasn't alive she couldn't die. Since it's acknowledge that she did in fact die, she must have been alive. Her essential nature never changed therefore she was a living human.

The death camp exercises contrarian "thinking" on abortion. "It" is alive and NECESSARILY human. Since it can be no other kind of life.

This wicked culture of death will be the end of society.