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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Bobo's World

In the NYT, Bobo Brooks draws the battle lines in the Terri Schiavo case between social conservatives who basically see her as a giant fetus, and social liberals who can't see that they are making pragmatic arguments for murder:
The core belief that social conservatives bring to cases like Terri Schiavo's is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic. The value of a life doesn't depend upon what a person can physically do, experience or achieve. The life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult.

Social conservatives go on to say that if we make distinctions about the value of different lives, if we downgrade those who are physically alive but mentally incapacitated, if we say that some people can be more easily moved toward death than others, then the strong will prey upon the helpless, and the dignity of all our lives will be diminished...

The core belief that social liberals bring to cases like Ms. Schiavo's is that the quality of life is a fundamental human value. They don't emphasize the bright line between life and death; they describe a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that, by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence.

On one end of that continuum are those fortunate enough to be able to live fully - to decide and act, to experience the world and be free. On the other end are those who, tragically, can do none of these things, and who are merely existing.

Social liberals warn against vitalism, the elevation of physical existence over other values. They say it is up to each individual or family to draw their own line to define when life passes to mere existence.

The central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste....

If you surveyed the avalanche of TV and print commentary that descended upon us this week, you found social conservatives would start the discussion with a moral argument about the sanctity of life, and then social liberals would immediately start talking about jurisdictions, legalisms, politics and procedures. They were more comfortable talking about at what level the decision should be taken than what the decision should be.
Brooks' argument is completely specious, and it has no relevance to the case at hand. The controversy is not centered around whether the life of anybody in a vegetative state has value, nor has it ever been. The fact is that even most evangelical Christians think that the feeding tube should not be reinserted, so opinions simply do not break down along the theological lines that Brooks would have you believe.

The argument seems to be between the people who believe her family, who say Terri is treatable and would have wanted extraordinary measures taken to prolong her life, and those who side with her husband, who say she is in a persistent vegetative state, and that she would not have wanted such measures to be taken. Twenty-two judges have now found that the husband is credible, that he is acting in accordance with her wishes, and that he has the right to do so. They have further found that the parents case is based on faulty science, and have rejected all their petitions.

Nowhere has anyone stepped up to claim that extraordinary measures should be taken in ALL cases to prolong life whenever possible, which would be the natural conclusion one would reach if Brooks' characterization of the argument had any validity. Of the 2.3 million people in this country who die every year, 500,000 die with hospice assistance, foregoing all extraordinary measures. It would cause a health crisis of catastrophic proportions if the government suddenly said they did not have the right to make that choice, which is probably one of the reasons, cynical or otherwise, that nobody is making it.

I'm sure Brooks would dismiss me as one of those liberal pragmatists, but the fact remains -- nobody is making the argument he claims they are. The controvery is, has been and always will be -- is she treatable, and is her husband credible? Brooks is in the wilderness howling alone on this one.

Another Take on the Bobo article from John Huffman, who I think is more persuasive in his argument:

Hey Jane,

I obviously find the Brooks argument more substantial than you do. So I guess Brooks isn't in the wilderness howling alone -- I'm with him.

I'm in favor of hospice care for anyone who is conscious enought to make that decision which, and this is an assumption, is probably the vast majority of those who are in (or have been in) hospices. And, of course, the definition of "extraordinary measures" is going to vary from person to person.

Having said that, Brooks' treatment of the question of morality as it relates to the conservative and liberal positions is an interesting one. One of my major problems with current liberal thought is how relatively unhinged it has become from moral standards. I'm just old enough to remember that in the Sixties the liberal appeal was essentially a moral one: for social justice, equality of oppportunity and for the country to live up to the ideals both implicit and explicit in its founding documents. So much of liberalism now seems to be based on indulging any and all appetites while shunning personal responsibility and demonizing those who call for retraint.

Don't take that as a blanket indictment of all liberals or even liberalism in general, but as an observation about what I (and I think many Americans) find unsettling about the current state of liberalism.

Meanwhile, I'm not thrilled with conservatives who think making a profound contribution to society is putting a rock with the ten commandments chiseled into it in every public courthouse. Or who would string up every convicted murderer they could instantly after trial -- or before the trial. Or who believe homosexuals ought to be forced to never express affection, hide their true nature in shame, be restricted in employment and face prosecution for consenting acts between adults. That's cheap, easy, mean-spirited morality that doesn't really speak to contemporary life.

Liberalism needs to reclaim its moral heritage, and conservatism has to unhook itself from a dopey social issue agenda that's a dead-end for the way Americans really live.

(Photo courtesy stock.xchng)