But supposing we still believe, despite the strong weight of evidence, that Mrs. Schiavo remains conscious at some level and might someday lead a normal life. The question then becomes not “What is the right thing to do,” but “Who is to decide?” As in so many human affairs, it is easier to have moral knowledge than knowledge of facts. We do know that, in our tradition, spouses are next of kin and empowered by law to make decisions when their wife or husband is incapable. That is why Mr. Schiavo, when the physicians concluded the case to be hopeless, was free to decide his wife’s fate. To change this legal tradition, in the heat of a passionate case, is a perilous undertaking.
I do not know what Mrs. Schiavo’s husband ought to do, but I do know that the decision belongs to him and not to either Jeb or George Bush. To those who wish to defend physical existence for its own sake at any cost, this will seem like Pilate’s decision. They are wrong. Pilate shirked his responsibility as Roman procurator by giving in to the mob. He should not have allowed the execution of Jesus, but neither should he have overturned both Roman and Jewish laws in order to strip families of their legal rights. The analogy, used with increasing frequency, between Mrs. Schiavo and Christ is blasphemous on many counts. She is not the God who willingly accepted death in order to redeem mankind. She is only a poor, frail mortal, like the rest of us, and her condition and death, so far from being a willing sacrifice, is the result, apparently, of binge dieting.
We also know, from our moral and legal traditions, that it can never be safe to entrust such a decision to the self-seeking politicians who seek public office, whether as state legislator, governor, congressman, or president, and that the only step more perilous than entrusting politicians with the power of life and death over members of our family is to give such power to the most dangerous enemies of morality and religion: federal judges. The Republican strategy, even if it had not been revealed in a GOP Senate memo as a cynical ploy, is subversive of the constitutional order of the United States and of what moral order is left in our society.
That much, a well-intentioned pagan might have said, but, for Christians, there is another dimension to this question. Liberal nonbelievers, who believe that “this is all there is,” may be pardoned for their hysterical attachment to physical life. This makes the non-Christian willingness to practice abortion and euthanasia all the more terrifying in its implications. For them, other people’s lives are mere commodities to be used when they are convenient, discarded when they are not.
Christians know better. They know, not only that life is a precious gift, but also that it is not all there is. There was a time when believers gratefully accepted even martyrdom because it was a chance to live and die for their faith. Life can and ought to be beautiful, and we who believe that God looked at His creation and saw that it was good cannot contemn the joy and beauty of everyday life. But we also know that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. We are sojourners here, like the Hebrews in the land of Egypt. Our home is elsewhere.
Mrs. Schiavo’s parents have the right and duty to do what they can for their daughter, but the rest of us—and, by the rest of us, I include Bill Frist, Tom Delay, George Bush, and the Vatican spokesmen who so cavalierly intrude themselves into legal and constitutional matters they do not understand—have no business. Playing politics with a dying woman, even if it advances the pro-life cause or expands the electoral base of the Republican Party, is contemptible.
The basic moral problem lies with Mr. Schiavo himself, and with a society that turns a blind eye to his adultery or bigamy. He has effectively repudiated his first wife, and, if Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature wished to do anything productive, they would stiffen laws protecting marriage and strip people like Mr. Schiavo of their power to act on behalf of their wives. It is not judges who need more power, but families.
I do not propose to legislate for the people of Florida, but there are any number of useful measures that might be passed in response to this agonizing case. Apart from stripping adulterers of spousal rights, they could specify a line of authority passing from parents to siblings to aunts and uncles, and so on, with a final provision for a family council to be made up of a group of the nearest living relatives who can be found. Admittedly, a handful of cousins may not take their responsibility very seriously, but even a long-lost cousin is more closely attached to me than any judge or politician.
Every decent American must feel sympathy for poor Mrs. Schiavo and her parents, but thousands of people die every day, and 50 years from now—a mere twinkling of a star—all of us will be dead: the Schiavos, the Schindlers, even the Bushes. If Mr. Schiavo is, in fact, murdering his wife, he will hardly be the first husband to get away with such a crime on one or another technicality. In 2003, 599 people were murdered in Chicago alone. Although the homicide rates have taken a drop in recent years, the United States leads the way in the developed world. We can take comfort that South Africa, Russia, and the Baltic republics are even more homicidal. Nonetheless, judges and parole boards continue to put dangerous felons and psychotics back on the streets. I wish that the Vatican spokesmen who want to change the laws of these United States from the safe distance of Italy (a country with one-fifth the per capita homicides as the United States), would express as much concern about a criminal justice system that, for a variety of reasons—liberal theories of penology, minority sensitivities, political corruption—refuses to protect American citizens from murder. Yet it is to these judges—the class with the most blood on its hands—that we are expected to turn for protection. Every preventable murder is a travesty of justice, and every intentional murder that goes unpunished—i.e., does not end with the execution of the murderer—is a sin crying out for vengeance.
Christians are right to be disturbed by the culture of death that has made abortion and euthanasia not only acceptable but legal and is well on the way to legitimating that form of homicide that goes by the name “assisted suicide.” But Christians should also bear in mind that we are not called upon to keep our mortal bodies running for as long as possible—indeed, the saints were always somewhat careless in this regard. We need to lead moral lives, accepting our responsibilities, both those we have inherited and those we have undertaken willingly, in the knowledge that we are preparing for another, better life. Mrs. Schiavo, in her current condition, cannot get on with this, the most important business of life. Her parents and friends who have told us she was a good Christian woman can be confident that she is passing on to a better life. If we do not believe this, then what do we believe? ~Thomas Fleming
I am very grateful that Dr. Fleming has taken the time to provide this very thoughtful and serious reflection on this suddenly very public controversy. There is not too much that I can add to his sober reflection on the matter, but I will second his observation that the travails of this poor woman are not our business. Neither is her case properly the business of the state or federal government.
I would like to add a few observations about the political response to this poor woman’s case. It is inconceivable that the very advocates of this week’s federal meddling would tolerate it were similarly intrusive actions were taken by a Democratic Congress and President for one of their new adopted causes. It ought to be beyond the pale for every conservative that their representatives would engage in such blatantly unconstitutional and arbitrary lawmaking–the very sort they decry and attribute to ideological activism when done by others–and it is simply absurd that the proponents of the butchery in Iraq can speak of the sanctity of life with any seriousness at all. What we have seen over the past week is a sort of “bleeding-heart conservatism” that is neither truly charitable or conservative: it is the sentimental demagoguery of a democratic politics in which rational appeals, discourse and standards of law are increasingly irrelevant in comparison to the emotional appeal to the crowd.
It is, in a way, premised on the same “pornography of compassion” Dr. Fleming details in his book, The Morality of Everyday Life, and which he recently applied to the overwrought and unreal claims of profound caring for the tsunami victims, as if we can be truly involved and concerned for her life in anything more than a general way when we see her in videos and on the front page of newspapers. Rather than granting that it may be time to let this woman rest in peace, that she might receive the consolations of the Lord, quite a few conservative Christians seem to have decided that this is an occasion for political mobilisation and activism.
I have also heard it said by various know-nothing “conservative” radio hosts that “we” are all somehow going to be complicit in Mrs. Schiavo’s death if “we” do not “do something” to stop it, as if “we” could possibly come to a more sane conclusion in a few days that years of legal deliberation failed to provide. This call to “do something” is the childish reasoning of the globalist humanitarian who tells us that “we” are obliged to help people in the Sudan, or Iraq, or wherever, or that “we” are responsible for the plight of someone on the other side of the world.
We can pray for Mrs. Schiavo, but I can no more pretend that I am deeply involved in her life than I was in the life of any of these cause celebres. Who, then, am I to render judgement in a matter that is legally and more or less properly entrusted to the woman’s legal guardian? We have seen something of this hysterical political act before in the Elian Gonzalez soap opera, which was another overwrought, media-hyped event that would otherwise have been an unfortunate tragedy to be handled among the boy’s family and the appropriate authorities.
The players making the racket are much the same, if not entirely identical, and are as misguided this time around. Then it was irate conservatives who would sooner keep a boy from his father than accept his return to dreaded Cuba. Now it is a band of enthusiasts who would sooner scrap the rule of law and the rulings of the courts than give up on Mrs. Schiavo, not for her sake, but for what she represents as a symbol of their own cause. Mr. Schiavo is undoubtedly disreputable and dishonourable, but his shamelessness has only been matched and fed by the shameless exploitation of a woman’s private plight and suffering by the legions of supposedly deeply concerned onlookers and the scavenger journalists who have helped transform this private affair into a national controversy.