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The Bizarre Passion of the We-Know-Best People

Many commentators have weighed in on the efforts to override Terri Schiavo’s medical decision to not be kept alive in a vegetative state, but no one was more blindly passionate than Peggy Noonan in her column, "In Love with Death: The Bizarre Passion of the Pull-the-Tube People."

When Noonan states, “I do not understand the emotionalism of the pull-the-tube people” and asks, “What is driving their engagement?” she completely misses the mark. Not every situation is reducible to her brand of religious emotionalism. Many people who support Schiavo’s dignified decision are horrified by imagining themselves in a similar situation – dead in all but name, our express wishes disregarded by holier-than-thou politicians and pundits who insist that their beliefs must take precedence.

Noonan asks, “Who is to say [her life] is pointless?” but ignores the obvious answer: her husband. She wonders why people are “unconcerned at the suffering caused her by the denial of food and water?” but ignores the fact that everyone involved would likely have preferred the use of a high-dose sedative many years ago. (Of course, it is Noonan’s right-wing allies that have disallowed that choice, forcing people in this appalling situation to treat their family members less humanely than their pets.)

No one wants Terri Schiavo dead because they are “half in love with death,” as Noonan states. No one is, as she puts it, “enthusiastic for euthanasia.” No one is crusading to yank out feeding tubes from every brain-dead patient irrespective of their wishes, although Bush did so in 1999 when he signed a law letting doctors remove life support even against the family’s wishes:

“If the patient or the person responsible for the health care decisions of the patient is requesting life-sustaining treatment that the attending physician has decided and the review process has affirmed is inappropriate treatment, the patient shall be given available life-sustaining treatment pending transfer under Subsection (d). The patient is responsible for any costs incurred in transferring the patient to another facility. The physician and the health care facility are not obligated to provide life-sustaining treatment after the 10th day after the written decision required under Subsection (b) is provided to the patient or the person responsible for the health care decisions of the patient…” (Section 166.046, subsection E)

Lest anyone think this a merely hypothetical issue, a six-month-old Texas child named Sun Hudson died on March 15 because his breathing tube was removed against his mother's wishes. Even after her legal appeals were exhausted, none of the 40 NICU facilities contacted was interested in caring for the infant in the ten days Bush's law had allotted.

That is truly a callous disregard for human life, particularly the lives of the poor and the uninsured. When every life has value equivalent only to the size of their 401(k), and the profit motive reigns supreme, then Noonan’s “culture of death” becomes a reality. Reminiscent of their caring about a fetus only until it is born, politicians’ public shows of “concern” for Schiavo at this late date is nothing more than crass opportunism. Are Republicans about to enact universal health care coverage to pick up the tab for catastrophic situations where there is still hope, or will they remain hypocrites?

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has perhaps the best commentaries on this political overreach, both in the Sunday Times and in his blog. He talks about the “crew of zealots and charlatans” who are “the real face of contemporary Republicanism,” and details their inconsistencies in the Schiavo case. His summation is:

“The case also highlights - in another wonderful irony - how religious right morality even trumps civil marriage. It is simply amazing to hear the advocates of the inviolability of the heterosexual civil marital bond deny Terri Schiavo's legal husband the right to decide his wife's fate, when she cannot decide it for herself. Again, the demands of the religious right pre-empt constitutionalism, federalism, and even the integrity of the family. When conservatism means breaking up the civil bond between a man and his wife, you know it has ceased to be conservative. But we have known that for a long time now. Conservatism is a philosophy without a party in America any more. It has been hijacked by zealots and statists.”

Noonan’s “culture of death” epithet may be appropriately used to define neo-Nazis and fringe church members who go on shooting sprees; it is clearly not relevant to the 82% of the people in this country who think Bush and the Congress should stay out of the Schiavo case. Instead, the endlessly meddlesome we-know-best gang (including Bill “I can diagnose via VCR” Frist) tries to control everything that is beyond their understanding or outside of their dogma. As David Broder observes in “Breach of Principle:”

“No one in the truncated congressional debate suggested that the Florida judges had been biased or negligent or anything but conscientious... […] The majority simply did not like the result of the case and decided to intervene.”

If I may speak for the two-thirds of this country that is not agitating to have Schiavo’s feeding tube re-inserted against her wishes, we are not “half in love with death.” We merely insist that our government respect citizens’ rights, and demand that our elected officials respect the law.

Noonan concludes her screed with talk of a “slippery slope to the gas chamber” and a “low road” that “leads toward Auschwitz.” Her rhetoric ignores the fact that those things can only happen when politicians are allowed to overrule private medical decisions. Noonan’s cry for greater governmental power in this area represents the most repugnant type of paternalist politics, and will bring no peace to either Terri Schiavo or her husband.

Thanks for reading.


Quote of the Day:

“That's why over the years both progressive and conservative judges have understood the importance of judicial restraint -- the principle that says the highest exercise of judicial duty is to subordinate the judges' private views to what the law permits or determines. But now […] special-interest groups seek to politicize the court system, to exercise a chilling effect on judges, to intimidate them into making decisions, not on the basis of the law or the merits of the case, but on the basis of a litmus test or a response to political pressure."

Ronald Reagan (radio address, 14 October 1987)

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