Chron editorial board caricatures and the culture of death

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The Chronicle editorial board, much like Howard Dean, just couldn’t resist making a political point about the Terri Schiavo controversy, notwithstanding their complaints that the issue should not be political.

It’s a fairly typical editorial from editorialists who show more concern for leftovers than for those unable to make decisions about their own lives or deaths (i.e. those who are brain-damaged or those who are trapped in a womb and unable to speak for themselves):

Now, with the autopsy, we know who was doing the misrepresentation — not to mention the exploitation of a sad, family-riving tragedy.

There seemed to be a modest sense of remorse on the part of some Republicans in the wake of the medical report. But that may have been because they saw how sharply the public reacted against their meddling. Some Republicans spoke in terms of their public-relations fiasco, not their simple wrongheadedness.

If they unexpectedly have learned a lesson, the methodology is immaterial.

On the topic of “how sharply the public reacted,” there has been plenty of discussion on the blogosphere of loaded questions producing predictable results in the Schiavo polling, and even Democratic pollster Pat Caddell made the point that most of the questions in the various Schiavo polls were egregiously loaded. Further, the reaction of the public to a Zogby question that presented a fairly accurate rendering of the Schiavo situation was contrary to the Chronicle editorial board’s portrayal. Perhaps the idealists should expand their reading.

As for the idealists’ haughty moral condescension, the internet (fortunately!) provides other perspectives that will never be represented on the Chronicle‘s narrowminded editorial pages. Here are a couple:

Annihilating Terri Schiavo (Paul McHugh, Commentary).

I use the term “life unworthy of life” advisedly. The phrase first appeared a long time ago–as the title of a book published in Germany in 1920, co-authored by a lawyer and a psychiatrist. Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwertes Leben translates as “Lifting Constraint from the Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Life.” Terri Schiavo’s husband and his clinical and legal advisers, believing that hers was now a life unworthy of life, sought, and achieved, its annihilation. Claiming to respect her undocumented wish not to live dependently, they were willing to have her suffer pain and, by specific force of law, to block her caregivers from offering her oral feedings of the kind provided to all terminal patients in a hospice–even to the point of prohibiting mouth-soothing ice chips. Everything else flowed from there.

How could such a thing happen? This, after all, is not Nazi Germany, where the culture of death foreshadowed in the awful title of that book would reach such horrendous public proportions. But we in this country have our own, homegrown culture of death, whose face is legal and moral and benignly individualistic rather than authoritarian and pseudo-scientific. It has many roots, which would require a long historical treatise to unravel, with obligatory chapters considering such factors as the growth of life-sustaining and life-extending technologies and the dilemmas they bring, the increasingly assertive deprecation of medical expertise and understanding in favor of patients’ “autonomous” decision-making, the explosion in rights-related personal law and the associated explosion in medical-malpractice suits, and much else besides.

All this has resulted in a steady diminution in the bonds of implicit trust between patients and their doctors and its replacement, in some cases by suspicion or outright hostility, in many other cases by an almost reflexive unwillingness on the part of doctors to impose their own considered, prudential judgments–including their ethical judgments–on the course of treatment. In the meantime, a new discipline has stepped into the breach; its avowed purpose is to help doctors and patients alike reach decisions in difficult situations, and it is now a mandatory subject of study in medical and nursing schools.

I am speaking of course about bioethics, which came into being roughly contemporaneously with the other developments I have been describing. To the early leaders of this discipline, it was plain that doctors and nurses, hitherto guided by professional codes of conduct and ancient ideals of virtue embedded in the Hippocratic oath or in the career and writings of Florence Nightingale, were in need of better and more up-to-date instruction. But, being theorists rather than medical practitioners, most bioethicists proved to be uninterested in developing the characters of doctors and nurses. Rather, they were preoccupied with identifying perceived conflicts between the “aims” of doctors and the “rights” of patients, and with prescribing remedies for those conflicts.

Unlike in medicine itself, these remedies are untested and untestable.

Although it certainly offers a strong pro-life perspective, this article is one of the more thoughtful commentaries that has been published on the Schiavo affair. The Chronicle idealists could stand to read it and think about it. It might help them to overcome the narrowminded caricature of pro-life conservatives that they’ve presented in their vile editorials on this topic.

A kinder, gentler killer (Peter Burnet, Brothers Judd Blog)

This week’s release of Terri’s autopsy results is being heralded as a vindication of her former husband and proof she would not have recovered. Few ever held out much hope she would, which is why so many were praying for her. The horror felt by so many was that so many others thought that was the sole issue and could see nothing beyond it. And as Dr. McHugh so eloquently explains, that wasn’t the issue for those dwindling members of the medical profession who believe they are called to save and protect life as they find it, not to destroy it through pseudo-scientific, amoral bafflegab. The thought that we may ever live see the day when when such moral grounding and nobility of vocation is gone with the wind is almost too chilling and depressing to bear.

There were, of course, no mobs trashing the streets and howling for Terri’s death, no political jeremiads against the terminally ill and no sick jokes about omelettes and broken eggs. That isn’t the way the culture of death, which is a logical endpoint of our broader therapeutic culture, operates. Its cold-hearted, selfish rationalism always comes wrapped in ersatz empathy and compassion (certified professionally in courses and workshops) for those it seeks to destroy or marginalize. Its tools are not storm troopers and secret police, but the mis-use of scientific language to confuse the decent, open and scrupulously well-documented bureaucratic process, psychological manipulation through ceaseless counseling and dialogue and, ultimately, judicial fiat. Unlike with the totalitarian horrors, the victims of the culture of death can often take comfort in knowing their executioners will be there holding their hand and weeping at the final moment, assuring them everyone is praying for them and that theirs was indeed a tough and tragic case. But die they must, and die they will.

blogHOUSTON highly recommends a daily dose of the Brothers Judd Blog (among others) to provide thoughtful alternative perspectives to the frequently insipid commentary produced by the Chronicle editorial idealists on national and international affairs — and, of course, this blog and other local blogs on our blogroll for alternative perspectives on local affairs.

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Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX