April 8, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Whether 'tis nobler in the minds of men to end it

Many of us were growing weary of the media frenzy recently about the right-to-live, right-to-die controversy over poor Terri Schiavo. Even worse, it was Easter time. To some, she was a “vegetable” who happened to be able to breathe. To others, she was a living person trapped within an unresponsive body, struggling to be recognized as alive.

In fact, none of us is privy to the actual facts of the case. Even the woman’s husband, parents and others close to her may have been confused or uninformed about what happened when, why and for what motive. Emotions ran high on both sides, not to mention possible elements of greed, jealousy, spousal abuse and in-law turf war.

The media produced its usual sensational stories, complete with possible villains and heroes, insinuations and facts that were conflicting or unclear. Not all judgments on either side seemed to be based in Christian charity, or even reason.

Some believed the woman fought a lifelong battle with eating disorders, which finally caused her heart to fail and put her in an unresponsive state in the prime of life. But, even if it were true, did that make her a victim or a perpetrator of her own problems? Should she be denied life supports because she “brought it on herself?”

On the other hand, is it respectful of God-given life to extend it beyond hope just because we can? Is it a sign of real faith to keep a person technically alive indefinitely with machinery or, rather, a sign of real fear that we may be making a terrible mistake if we don’t?

Most of us wonder how the situation got to where it did. According to the reports, the husband and his in-laws were friendly enough at first, even living together in the same house. But, when Terri fell ill, all cooperation between the parties began to disintegrate.

That’s when the usual human failings came into play, such as doubt and misunderstanding. These were accompanied by human virtues of compassion and responsibility, thus leading to the ultimate dilemma. Despite all the hoopla, perhaps each side’s arguments were believable and worthy.

On one hand, we saw a husband who tried to be true to what he believed was his wife’s wishes by taking her off artificial support, to die quietly without prolonged suffering. On the other, we found parents who loved their daughter and detected hopeful signs that she might recover and live a decent life.

If we were authorized to judge, which we were not, how would we assess their motivations? If the husband, who after all was betraying his marriage with a new partner and children, was just trying to be rid of Terri, why didn’t he divorce her and let her parents take guardianship? Is it possible he was determined to be faithful to his marriage vow “in sickness and in health?” And, if the parents believed Terri would “wake up,” why should they abandon an innocent to a cruel death? Indeed, how could they not keep fighting to keep her alive?

In the end, it is God who decides such matters, not the husband or the parents or us. If we’ve learned anything from all this, it should be to let others know our end-of-life wishes then persevere in seeking God’s will until that end.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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