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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The American Way of Death

Paul Klee, "Death and Fire," 1940 (painted shortly before his death)

Roy over at Alicublog (one of my daily must-reads, and one of the best blogs on the net) had this to say about the Terri Schiavo affair:
I recently talked to a fellow whose aged, infirm mother passed on last year. At one point the woman was hovering between life and death, and the doctors had a talk with her son: we can probably revive her, they said, but she will certainly be brain dead and unable to breathe on her own. No heroic measures were taken, and the woman died peacefully.

This sort of thing -- for those of our readers unacquainted with life as it is lived by actual human beings -- goes on all the time.

Of course, but for an accident of timing, hordes of imbeciles might have forced Congress into an extraordinary session to get the mother on a respirator, or denounced the son as a murderer, or explained that the moral superiority of persistent vegetative states was proven by their childhood reaction to a "Star Trek" episode.

At the moment the American people seem to recognize what a lot of bullshit this whole Schiavo case is. But what they think hardly matters. The Republicans, flush with power, know that they can get away with a lot right now, and so are quickly handing out candy to their most powerful interest groups. The banks and financial companies got their turn with the Bankruptcy Bill, the oil companies got theirs with ANWR; now the Jesus Freaks are getting some play.
I thought it was nice way to bring the whole affair back down to the personal, and I'm reminded of the two people I know who have died with the assistance of Hospice, an organization that offers care to approximately 500,000 of the 2.3 million people who die in the US each year. When you sign on to Hospice, you must be diagnosed with less than 6 months to live, and agree not to have any exceptional measures taken to sustain you -- and that includes feeding tubes, IVs or respirators.

As a result, one of my friends who had cancer of the digestive tract actually died of starvation; the other, who eventually grew too weak to breathe, died of suffocation. It's my understanding that these are fairly common ways for hospice patients to die. Now, Terri Schiavo didn't have the opportunity to officially and personally agree to these terms, it's true. But I think that all of the people who are upset that removing her feeding tube is some sort of cruel and unusual death might want to take it up with the Hospice people. My experience with their program is that they are one of the most compassionate and supportive organizations in the world.