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
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.