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Mar 21st 2005

Terri Schiavo from James Q. Wilson

When I was a senior in high school Leon Busche introduced our AP Government class to James Q. Wilson.

With the recent controversy surrounding the right-to-die/kill debate re: Terri Schiavo, Wilson has written a compelling piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he argues for Mrs. Schiavo’s life.

A key excerpt:

Many people, myself included, have allowed life-support systems to be withdrawn from parents who have no hope of recovery. My mother was going to die from cancer, and after all efforts had been made to help her, my sister and I allowed the doctors to withdraw the devices that kept her alive. She was dead within hours.

My case, and that of countless other people who have made that decision, differs from that of Terri Schiavo in two important ways. First, the early death of my mother was certain, but no one can say that Ms. Schiavo will die soon or possibly at any time before she might die of old age. Second, all the relevant family members agreed on the decision about my mother, but family members are deeply divided about Terri.

These differences are of decisive importance.

Read the whole thing.

28 Responses to “Terri Schiavo from James Q. Wilson”

  1. travis

    i haven’t been following this story very closely, but i do have one recurring thought on the subject. it is a question: how perverted has politics become when the party that opposes the death penalty for convicted rapists, murderers, and child molesters effectively supports imposing it on an innocent woman?

  2. What is the point of keeping her alive until she dies of “old age,” as Wilson argues? She can’t do anything!!!!!!!! She is as much dead now as she is alive. And why are politicans becoming involved? The only ones that I have heard of (and granted, I have not read anything about her, I just heard a little blurb about this on CNN) are Republicans, namely Jed and George Bush.

  3. LaurenceB

    Doug,
    It sounds very much like Mr. Wilson is arguing that life support systems should only be removed when the family is unanimous in the decision, and when the patient is elderly. Does anyone agree with that position? I don’t think I do.

    Katie,
    No matter where one stands on the Shaivo issue, there is simply no justification for the U.S. Congress (or the Florida legislature) to be involved in the way that they are. You are absolutely correct.

    Travis,
    It is indeed entertaining to tally up the “life” and “death” issues and see where the different groups stand. Perhaps the most notable in this regard is the Roman Catholic Church, whose principled positions in favor of human life should be noted for their unique consistency – anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-stem cell research, anti-war, anti-birth control, anti-euthanasia, etc. Off the top of my head, I don’t think there is another group (certainly not the Republican or Democratic Parties) that shows a similar consistency. Just to be clear, I’m not saying I agree or disagree with any of these positions, I’m only noting what appears to be the unique position of the Catholic Church.

    Finally, I suppose I should register an objection to Travis’ suggestion that the Democratic Party is guilty of supporting a death sentence penalty for Terri Shaivo. This is wrong on so many counts I don’t really have the time or energy to go into them.

  4. LaurenceB

    Doug,
    After re-reading Mr. Wilson, it is clear to me that I misunderstood one of his main points and therefore mis-stated the case he is making.

    Actually, his argument appears to be that life support systems should only be removed when death is imminent and when all family members unanimously agree. However, once again, this is not a position I would support.

    By the way, his comments vis-a-vis the effectiveness of living wills, make this article a must-read in my opinion. Very instructive.

  5. travis

    I suppose I should register an objection to Travis’ suggestion that the Democratic Party is guilty of supporting a death sentence penalty for Terri Shaivo. This is wrong on so many counts I don’t really have the time or energy to go into them.

    it’s funny. it’s hilarious, actually. they spend political energy opposing the death penalty for very, very guilty people on the grounds of “humanity” and what is “civilized” (and offer some of the same reasons for supporting the extension of marriage rights to homosexuals, ironically) but when it comes to terri, expending political energy to save a life is suddenly inhumane, thuggish, and MORE!

    I don’t really have the time or energy to go into them.

    come on! what happened to all your promises of being my new watchdog? i thought you were going to help me right my ways, smarty pants? tell me how i am wrong so i can be right and perfectly moderate and agreeable like you! if not, you are no better than terri “useless life” schiavo herself!

    the truth is, i don’t know why terri’s parents are still fighting for her life. i am not about to decide who is a person and who isn’t, but i agree that her life should probably be ended. on the other hand, her freaking parents don’t want her life to end yet. it seems like a no-brainer to me. would the government “order” a wounded pet euthanized if people are willing to adopt it and care for it? it’s ludicrous.

  6. Al

    It is an interesting situation and I would definately not want to have to make that kind of decision. However, many people do have to make that decision, and I think it is horrible that instead of coming together in a time of pain and sorrow, this family seems to be fighting unrelentingly against each other. Very sad.
    I can understand how the parents would want her to live, IF they felt that there were some possible way for her to come back to them. Medicine has made amazing advances, even within the last several years. Who is to say that something won’t come along in the next 5 or 10 years that will save her life and bring her back to her family.

  7. LaurenceB

    OK. (sigh)

    Here is why it is not true that the Democratic Party supports “imposing [the death penalty] on an innocent woman”.

    1. The Death Penalty is administered by the state. But Terri Shaivo’s feeding tube was removed at the order of her husband, acting as her proxy. The state has not ordered her death, it has simply allowed her (through her instructions to her husband) to end her own life. There is no application of the death penalty here at all.

    2. To the extent that the Democratic Party has had a bit role in this drama, it has been nothing more than a specatator. It does not have a role in the court system. And its opposition to the shenanigans in the Florida Legislature and U.S. Congress have been tepid at best. In the U.S. Senate, the Democratic leadership (Harry Reid) actually declared itself in favor of “Terri’s Law”, and didn’t even bother to gather a quorum – allowing the bill to pass unanimously. To blame the Democrats (or to give them credit for anything) in this case is awfully hard to do. Basically, they’re not even in the ball game.

  8. doug

    re: Wilson’s argument

    I think that the thrust of Wilson’s argument is that there are just too many unknowns in this case:

    (1) Would Terri Schiavo wanted to die or live? There is no written document, and the interested parties, family members, are divided on this question.

    and

    (2) Can she recover? The consensus seems to be no…but…

    The only certainty is that starving to death will take much longer than just a few hours.

    And Wilson’s conclusion is: with so much incertainty, why should anyone take her life into their hands? Doing so would be “playing god” and inherently immoral according to Wilson.

    I tend to agree.

  9. summer

    at the same time, it seems that keeping her alive when she naturally would have died a long time ago is also playing god, in a sense.

  10. doug

    keeping her alive when she naturally would have died a long time ago is also playing god, in a sense.

    I think this has some vailidity. It is a tough issue.

    The distinction that I draw is that the help she needs to stay alive is only food and water.

    For all I know, I may get hit by a car walking home tonight and end up in the hospital, needing a feeding tube for a few weeks as I recovered from my injuries (assuming doctors said I should recover fully after a few months). I think we can all agree that it would be murder for them to disconnect my feeding tube.

    The difference I think most of us draw is that Terri Schiavo’s prospects for recovery differ from my hypothetical chances at recovery. But as Wilson points out, there is great uncertainty in this regard. It would seem that no one can be sure what Schiavo’s prospects are to regain some motor function.

    With this uncertainty, erring on the side of death seems questionable.

  11. doug

    What is the point of keeping her alive until she dies of “old age,” as Wilson argues? She can’t do anything!!!!!!!!

    This is certainly a succint argument for the extermination of all people “who can’t do anything,” or as some prefer to call them: old people in nursing homes.

  12. katie

    I am telling all of you right now, that if I get really really old, and lose ALL mental and physical capacities (which mean I have no choice at all in what I do) and am only kept alive by a feeding tube, and live in a nursing home…..I want to die. No questions about it. Why would I leave myself as a burden for my family when I could offer nothing more the world and the world could offer nothing more to me?
    However, the majority of old people in nursing homes are different than Mrs. Schiavo. Even individuals with Alzheimers (sp?) are still able to communicate, move, think….even if they can’t remember who people are or where they are.
    I also agree with Summer. That keeping a person alive after they would have died naturally is also playing God. Excellent point!

  13. travis

    To blame the Democrats (or to give them credit for anything) in this case is awfully hard to do. Basically, they’re not even in the ball game.

    that was my point: with the plethora of similarities between schiavo and anybody on death row (except perhaps the guilt/innocence question), it is funny that the democrats are so reluctant to take a stand. are they actually THAT spineless?

  14. Al

    Summer does make an excellent point. The question that comes next to me is who has more authority in deciding what happens to her?

    Please don’t get offended if I get a little personal here. If, for example, Katie does as she states, and is old and not able to function, and there is no statement of her wishes, who has the final say in what happens?

    What if, and forgive me again for being so personal, her husband wants her to live but others don’t? What if her evil, ugly, older brother knows her wishes and desires to carry them out. (JK Trav-about the evil part…) Who would ultimately have say in what happens to her? Both parties love her. Both have strong familial bonds. But, which bond is stronger in a court of moral decision? The loving husband, or the loving brother.

    Both have good intentions, but is there an ultimate Right and ultimate Wrong in this situation? Who is to decide what is right and wrong? Obviously, our court system is capable of determining “moral” right and wrong, but are they able to in this case?

    No matter the decision of the courts, one party looses. They either loose a daughter or they loose moving on with life. It seems to me that this case is rittled with ethical delemas with more than one right answer.

    This has made me think and ask a lot of questions. Well done!

  15. LaurenceB

    Travis,

    I’m very pleased that it now appears that you and I are in agreement that the Democrats have not been actively pursuing the death penalty for Schaivo. Apparently, I misinterpreted your earlier comment which seemed to say that.

    I am curious, however, that you now codemn them for being “spineless”. What position could the Democrats have taken that you would have applauded? Since you’ve already expressed your dissatisfaction with both their non-involvement, and with their involvement if they had aggressively opposed the bill, I assume you would have been happy to see them support the bill. Is that correct? Did you support the bill? Just wondering.

  16. Anony

    “That keeping a person alive after they would have died naturally is also playing God. ”

    Close the hospitals! Shut down the ambulances, turn out the doctors! If you are saving lives, you’re playing God!

  17. Brad

    It’s amazing to me that this issue has gotten so much national attention, when similar decisions are probably made daily across the nation and world. Isn’t the real issue here how much we have brought a family argument to national attention?

  18. travis

    Close the hospitals! Shut down the ambulances, turn out the doctors! If you are saving lives, you’re playing God!

    it may seem silly, but god gives life and god takes life, so summer’s analogy is apt, at least to think outside the box and raise the question.

    What position could the Democrats have taken that you would have applauded? Since you’ve already expressed your dissatisfaction with both their non-involvement, and with their involvement if they had aggressively opposed the bill, I assume you would have been happy to see them support the bill. Is that correct? Did you support the bill? Just wondering.

    i think more democrats should have supported the bill in congress. i think NOW (also famously silent in the lacy peterson murder) should have spoken up.

    i support the bill. it may be silly of her mother and father to want to keep terri alive, but their wishes should trump those of their estranged son-in-law.

    as for the chosen manner of death: letting her waste away for two weeks until she dies of dehydration isn’t very humane. the most humane way for her to go at this point would be lethal injection, but i don’t think a judge would pass that ruling–it would put them in dr mengele/dr kevorkian territory.

  19. Brad

    i support the bill. it may be silly of her mother and father to want to keep terri alive, but their wishes should trump those of their estranged son-in-law.

    What legal or moral ground are you basing that on? Why should the mother or father’s wishes trump that of Terri’s husband?

  20. doug

    Why should the mother or father’s wishes trump that of Terri’s husband?

    Maybe because “Terri’s husband” has been living with another woman for quite a while, and has two children with this woman. No man can serve two masters…

  21. Brad

    Are you saying that because he has been living with another woman he loves his wife Terri any less? Is he not just as concerned for her welfare as her parents may be? While I won’t argue about the moral justification of living with another woman while legally married to someone else – he still needs to move on. He is still Terri’s legal husband, as well as the person most closely associated with Terri before and at the time this happened to her – making him the best source to know Terri’s own wishes. I don’t think that this is an instance where he’s now living with another woman and he wants Terri out of his life.

    We’re all assuming it’s a vicious idea to pull the feeding tube from Terri, when it may be that the husband loves her so much that he wants what’s best for her – and he, and alot of other people, believe that is that she should move on. Doctors are in general agreement that that is not a particularly brutal way of dying, either. At this point, she has no conscious, really of hunger, etc. It’s a relatively peaceful way to move on, and frankly, if she hasn’t recovered after fifteen years, why can’t she move on? You can keep her heart pumping with alot of machines for a long time, but for what purpose? And at what expense, financially, and emotionally?

  22. doug

    Are you saying that because he has been living with another woman he loves his wife Terri any less?

    Yeah…that’s the idea.

    …he still needs to move on.

    Exactly. Which is a pretty dumb reason for killing someone.

    …it may be that the husband loves her so much that he wants what’s best for her…

    You don’t live with another woman when your legal wife is in the hospital. That is not “love” by any stretch of the imagination.

  23. LaurenceB

    Doug and Travis,

    Whether or not Michael Shaivo should be Terri’s legal guardian is indeed a difficult one – I too have doubts about his sincerity. But I hasten to add that this question was decided upon in court when the Schindlers attempted to remove him as legal guardian. The judge sided with Michael Shaivo and his decision was upheld under appeal.

    The larger question for those who supported the bill is this: Do you believe that the U.S. Congress should be allowed to move the venue of legal battles when it disagrees with the verdict? I find it hard to believe that anyone would support this idea. I was always taught that legislatures should make laws, and then they should allow courts to interpret them. If that’s not right, please explain how and why.

  24. doug

    But I hasten to add that this question was decided upon in court when the Schindlers attempted to remove him as legal guardian. The judge sided with Michael Shaivo and his decision was upheld under appeal.

    The courts are not infallible. Just because “the courts” say something doesn’t make it right. They can be wrong.

    The question isn’t what the courts decided. Everyone knows what they’ve decided. The question is: did the courts do the right thing? I tend to agree with the argument that they did not.

    The larger question for those who supported the bill is this: Do you believe that the U.S. Congress should be allowed to move the venue of legal battles when it disagrees with the verdict?

    Of course.

    I find it hard to believe that anyone would support this idea.

    Think again.

    Congress has been dissatisfied with Court rulings before and modified the law.

    What you are thinking of, perhaps, is when the Supreme Court rules that a certain law is unconstitutional. The national consensus is in that case, the President should not enforce an unconstitutional law, nor should the Congress try to pass the same law again.

  25. LaurenceB

    Doug,

    I have read and re-read your response and I honestly can make no sense out of it. Are you really arguing that the Congress can overturn verdicts of state courts? Or that they can arbitrarily decide that cases should be re-tried in federal courts on an ad-hoc basis?

  26. doug

    Are you really arguing that the Congress can overturn verdicts of state courts?

    They can certainly change the venue, which is what you originally asked:

    Do you believe that the U.S. Congress should be allowed to move the venue of legal battles when it disagrees with the verdict?

    Now…as you know, Congress has broadened the authority of federal courts substantially over the years.

    Just this year they passed legislation dealing with class action lawsuits. Why? Because they didn’t like the previous outcomes! Lawyers were forum shopping… So what Congress did was force certain types of class actions into federal courts.

  27. Brad

    Doug, I respectfully disagree.

  28. […] –LaurenceB, Mar 2005 [link] its pretty pathetic when a blog is so far out on the right-wing fringe it needs a Moderate-Conservative to balance it out. It’s pretty clear that dissent from the (Republican) party line is not allowed around here, isn’t it? […]