Jason Poling: Terry Schiavo, five years on
The Rev. Jason Poling is Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville.
Five years ago, Terri Schiavo was pronounced dead more than 15 years after a heart attack put her into a persistent vegetative state. The battles leading up to that conclusion originated in a struggle between her husband Michael Schiavo and her parents Robert and Mary Schindler over who would determine proper care for her; they eventually managed to involve all three branches of the federal government, and hastened the political demise of Sen. (and Dr.) Bill Frist's once-promising Presidential candidacy.
As I watched the story unfold like a slow-motion car wreck, I was struck by the difficulty of the ethical issues involved. Does a feeding tube constitute "extraordinary measures" used to sustain life? Some liken it to the technological intervention of a ventilator, while others consider it basic nutrition and hydration which no-one could humanely deny. Did the widely disseminated videos of Schiavo reflect genuine intelligent response to people known to her or simply an involuntary reaction to external stimuli? Was Schiavo a living human being, or simply a metabolizing organism? Did she begin to rest in peace five years ago, or twenty?
The profound ethical questions raised in this case will continue to be debated, as well they should. But as long as they are unresolved the more pressing question for most of us is how a situation like Schiavo's is to be handled. Schiavo's autopsy revealed that she had indeed suffered massive and irreversible brain damage, but decisions about her care had to be made without this evidence. Absent a clear advance medical directive, does her husband make decisions for her? Do her parents have the right to trump her husband? Do the courts have the right to trump both? Congress?
Every day difficult medical decisions are made without certain knowledge about what will happen, or what would happen if a different path were taken. And every day these decisions are made among differences of opinion as what the “right” — or at least best — choice is. At the end of the day someone must make the call, and we as a society must have ways of ensuring that the appropriate person is making these decisions when the patient is unable to and has not authorized someone else to.
Among the most important things we learn from Scripture about the nature of marriage is that every wedding involves two funerals. “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Jesus commented on this verse, “So they are no longer two, but one” (Matthew 19:6). When I officiate at weddings I always point out that from that day forward the people being married are entering into a change in the very essence of their being: no longer will either be himself or herself apart from the other. (I then sign the marriage license, and hope to snag a few crab balls on the way out. They then spend the rest of their lives working that out.)
What surprised me the most about the controversy over the Schiavo case was that the same people who ordinarily defend traditional understandings of marriage — people who in the course of pastoral ministry and teaching emphasize to couples (and their parents) the importance of “leaving and cleaving,” who encourage couples to work out their problems rather than running to their parents, who really do believe that the two become one — were the ones who wanted Terri Schiavo’s parents, rather than her husband, to make decisions about her medical care. No doubt if the roles had been reversed, they’d have been taking loud and strong stands on the right of a husband to make decisions for his disabled spouse, and decrying efforts by the government and her parents to remove the feeding tube.
Obviously it’s possible (and sometimes necessary) to petition a court to transfer decisionmaking authority from the party who would ordinarily hold it if that person can be demonstrated to be incompetent or malicious. Some argued the latter was the case for Michael Schiavo, although a more sympathetic reading of the situation would understand him as someone who came to terms with the loss of his wife and wanted to achieve closure for the both of them by allowing the completion of a long dying process. In the end he didn’t even make the decision; he petitioned the court to make the decision on his wife’s behalf according to her wishes as he understood them.
I’ve had the difficult privilege of walking alongside people as they made end-of-life decisions for their loved ones. Sometimes I haven’t agreed with their decisions personally. But I’m not the decider. If it’s true in other areas surely it’s true in this one: Sometimes people think they’re doing God’s will, but they aren’t. Yet amidst all the difficulty of making these decisions, and of caring for those making them, I rest secure in the knowledge that God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful. As we approach Easter I’m reminded that no harm any of us does to another is beyond God’s capacity to redeem.