The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.2075 Monday, 27 October 2003
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Thursday, 23 Oct 2003 18:13:03 -0400
Subject: LA Times ed To be or not to be
October 23, 2003
To Be or Not To Be
The questions and issues are profound. The response is petty, political
and sadly predictable. Once again, American society confronts a morally
anguishing spectacle on the too familiar right-to-die front. Since we
can't agree on when human life starts, it's not surprising we're still
stumped by death. When should we as caring family in an advanced but
inattentive society do all that is now possible to prolong life?
More important, when should we as thoughtful people take our amazing
medical technology -- and our amazingly picayune human foibles -- and
get out of the way of the ugly process of dying that will inevitably
claim every one of us? The Florida case of Terri Schiavo provides one
more opportunity to ponder this public dilemma and perhaps private
Nearly 14 years ago Schiavo's heart stopped. That's unexpected at 25,
though death's inevitability shouldn't be unexpected for anyone.
Schiavo, like most Americans, had no living will detailing her wishes in
the event of a medical emergency. So we're left with her husband saying
she wouldn't want to "live" this way versus her parents saying she's
"alive" and responsive. By the way, there's a lingering family feud over
$plitting a medical malpractice settlement.
At bottom, all parenting is about one thing: hope. But hope for the
child, not for the parents to the exclusion of all reality. Medicine can
restart and regulate hearts. But not a brain deprived of oxygen. Schiavo
lies in a persistent vegetative state, meaning eyes open and rolling,
drooling, involuntary movements. If "fed" through hoses, cleaned and
turned, this body can exist for years. Is this a life? For her? (For
you?) The family disagreed. So courts decided the feeding tube could
go. The parents appealed to the Legislature, which gave the governor
one-time authority to reinstall the tubes. He did.
Time and technology march on. First, respirators then feeding tubes
arrive. Courts decide, as temporary man-made interventions, they can be
removed. Fact is, 30 years ago, before "feeding tubes," Schiavo would be
dead. Be clear, this is not Mom's chicken soup or pot roast being pumped
into a permanent entrance in Schiavo's stomach. It's a chemical slurry,
a liquid crutch to prolong body biology. Nothing more than another
impressive intervention that can prolong dying as well as living. What's
These decisions, usually eluded, are extremely difficult. They should be
difficult; they're life and death. Many families and doctors forge them
quietly. Such issues shouldn't be left to legislators to pounce on for a
preelection parade. Would you like those faceless folks in Sacramento,
who agree only on casinos and fund-raising, deciding your life and death
because you never got around to specifying values and wishes to doctors
and numerous loved ones?
To be sure, it's very hard to contemplate our own perhaps distant demise
during the healthy, happy days of life.
But if not then, when?
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Hardy M. Cook,
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