My take on Terri Schiavo

The blogosphere is aflutter with the Terri Schiavo controversy.  Most likely because the press is unwilling to report on the good news coming from the Middle East, nobody really cares about the Michael Jackson trial, and there's only so much reporting on social security you can do without starting to give people facts... and that would allow the people to form their own opinion about the relative merits of taxation versus private accounts.

My take on the whole thing is that I'll talk about what matters to me.  Terri Schiavo, alive or dead, doesn't matter to me... because the outcome doesn't change my life much either way.  It's not worth getting worked up about for someone not directly involved.   Obviously for her family it's a whole different story, and that's the way it should be.  It should be a state issue, rather than a federal issue, and the real question is whether her husband is reasonably qualified to remain her guardian.  That's a legal question that I'm not interested in considering (or interfering with);  let the system work.

Were I in Terri's situation, I'm not sure what I would want.  I do not want to be on life support indefinitely, but she isn't.  I don't want to continue living if I am essentially mindless, but it's unclear whether that applies to her.  I don't want to be hasty about pulling the plug if I appear to be mindless, so long as a recovery is possible.  Nor do I want to stay alive on a feeding tube with no brain activity for years even if there is a slim chance of recovery.  It's a hard question.  (I know for damn sure that if I have to go, starvation and dehydration are not my methods of choice).

But I'm not writing this to talk about what a hard question it is for a hypothetical, omniscient Terri who could make the decision with her full brain capacity and knowledge of her chances.  I'm writing to talk about what a hard decision it is for us when dealing with someone who was once human, but who has been reduced to the level of an animal (at best), and what rights that once-person has.  It brings up something I've considered in the past... the idea that the only necessary condition for having rights is the ability to demand them.

Terri's situation is dire because she can no longer demand the legal rights she once enjoyed.  Even if her mind is completely intact, and there's just something wrong with the wiring to her body, the fact that Terri can no longer demand that her rights be respected has placed her into the category of an animal... with humans deciding whether she should live or die.

Kevin at The Smallest Minority has been theorizing about the origin of rights recently.  He believes, to paraphrase and oversimplify, that rights come from a society's recognition and enforcement of those rights.  Without either one, the rights do not exist for practical purposes -- as was the case for most of history.  He's arguing against a straw man (albeit a fairly solid one, historically) that says rights come from nature, or from natural law, or from God.  (For the people of the Founder's era, those three things were probably mostly identical).

Terri's case demonstrates that one side of that argument is wrong, despite the weight of history.  Rights are not "natural and inalienable" if you can lose those rights when you lose your reason.  Terri has clearly lost her rights; the only question is whose "property" she is -- her husband's or her family's.

But the social consensus argument falls flat when you consider the history of slavery in the United States.  When the Constitution was written, slaves had essentially no rights.  They were property, just as Terri is today.  The Civil War and subsequent amendments freed the slaves.  But the social consensus did not grant them equal rights, and so they did not have equal rights.  Rather than freeing themselves, they were (for the most part) freed by their society, on society's terms.  So, from the practical perspective, social consensus determines enforcement of rights.  But was slavery morally right until the social consensus shifted?  Was segregation morally right because it matched the social consensus for many years?

In hindsight, we can say with certainty that both slavery and segregation were morally wrong despite the social consensus at the time.   What does that tell us about rights? 

For one thing, we know that segregation ended and equal rights under the law were achieved when the black population stood up en masse and demanded the rights they believed they had.

The social consensus regarding racial minorities changed not when the law granted them rights, but when they demanded their rights.   The moment a black man stood up from his chains and said, "You can't do this to me!  I am a free man!" he gained moral rights, because he no longer consented to his treatment, even under duress.  Society's enforcement of those rights came later, when the people as a whole demanded equal rights, but it is the individual claim to rights that grants them. 

Terri, who can no longer communicate her claim to those rights, has lost them -- whether or not she is still capable of rational thought.

This entry was published Sat Sep 24 10:43:35 CDT 2005 by TriggerFinger and last updated 2005-09-24 10:43:35.0. [Tweet]

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