Sunday, March 27, 2005

Is this what being "Undead" really looks like?

Thinking over the whole Terri Schiavo situation recently, I can't help but think that what we have here is a case of people and events falling through the cracks of morality. Dead versus alive, moral versus immoral, faithful versus adulterous -- those are all binary states, and yet, none of them seems to apply to anyone in the whole case. I wonder if that's not the root of so much discord in human affairs: our need to assign everything to one side of a binary state when it might not even be possible to do so.

:: Is Terri Schiavo alive? In one very real sense, she is: her body still draws breath, her heart still beats, et cetera. But there's another very real sense in which she is as dead as Paul Revere. The person is gone. The dreams and aspirations, the loves and fears, the highs and lows, that all combined to make Terri Schiavo the person she was are gone, and they're not coming back, short of what would be the most astonishing medical miracle in human history. Is that what matters when we speak of life and death? On the one hand, it doesn't seem so, because we can't just bury Terri Schiavo while the body still draws breath and the heart still beats.

This stuff really reminds me of some of the abstract issues we used to discuss in philosophy classes, and I guess if nothing else the whole Schiavo affair reveals that yes, we do actually use philosophy once in a while in real life. What, exactly, is a person? What is it that makes a being uniquely human? And ultimately, is there any sense of the word "human", beyond simple biological nomenclature, for which Terri Schiavo now qualifies?

This kind of thing also makes me wonder about the nature of the soul. For those who believe in souls (and I'm genuinely not sure into which camp I fall on that score), does Terri Schiavo's soul still reside in that husk of a body that's been reduced to functioning only by dint of the reflexive functions of what little brain tissue remains? or did her soul vacate her body when the persistent vegitative state began? If the former, then it seems to me to be unnecessary torment of a soul to insist that it remain shackled to this earthly realm; if the latter, then all the arguments boil down to what to do with a body that only still lives because it doesn't know enough not to.

Which, of course, leads to the question of abortion. I really see little parallel between Ms. Schiavo's plight and abortion, because the moral question of a fetus has another factor going for it: potentiality. Even if one denies that life begins at conception (a premise to which I've never subscribed), one must still admit that a fetus has the potential to grow into a person. My understanding is that Terri Schiavo has no such potential (again, barring the greatest medical miracle in human history).

So it seems to me that the case of Terri Schiavo pits people who define life by the beating heart versus people who define human life by the more elusive thing called the person, and the problem is that Terri Schiavo is dead in one sense, but not in the other.

:: I've also noticed that many consider Michael Schiavo to be an adulterer, because since Terri has entered her permanent vegitative state, he has taken the company of another woman and had two children with her. I personally do not (and without going into details, I have some personal experience in my extended family with relationships of this sort) -- or, rather, I consider the mere legal matter on whether he has committed adultery to be pretty uninteresting. I refuse to stand in moral judgement of a man who saw his first wife fall to such a fate and who refused to put all aspects of his life on hold until her physical body caught up with where her "personhood" had gone. That's not to say that I agree with the choices Michael Schiavo has made, because he's made some choices that I find distasteful. But then, so have Terri's parents, and the whole situation is one of spectacular horror. I frankly can't imagine a more nightmarish scenario to have to undergo than the one in which Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers are involved, and I honestly can't pretend that my own moral choices in that situation would be any better than theirs.

Ultimately, this whole situation is a no-win scenario in every sense of the word. There is no victory to be had here, by anyone. I find it sad that so many people are behaving as though there is. No matter which way this thing plays out, the end result is the same: Terri Schiavo is dead. Everything else is just details and trying to force human messiness into a handy set of binary states.

No comments: