A shortfall of courage

Impossible this past week to escape the ugly emotional fallout generated by the battle between those who want Terri Schiavo alive at any cost and those who are willing to let her go. (I'm writing this on Sunday, so the hapless object of media, legislative and clerical blitzkrieg may have already passed away by the time you read it.)

I've been deeply shocked at the level of verbal violence loosed by this awful argument - an argument that should have remained private and personal, rather than being politicized, turned into talkshow fodder, exposed to mob hysteria.

After 15 years' imprisonment in a persistent vegetative state, Mrs. Schiavo's sad flesh may or may not be home to some shred of mind or soul. But the thought of letting her body go into that Good Night has riled up all the demons that teem in the widening abyss between American conservatives and liberals.

Some of us have faced the terrible dilemma of whether to allow a loved one to die with dignity. Some of us have made careful arrangements with spouses about what to do if the core of what we are is lost to illness or accident.

These are solemn matters. Matters that have everything to do with the way we cherish character, identity, volition, the uniquely individual, precious spirit that spells Self. Matters that cause us to confront our hopes and fears about death and what comes after, about what we believe constitutes life.

Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube (consider the cold mechanics of that phrase) has been removed because her husband and the courts judge that this is what she would have wished, that there's no real hope that the Terri Schiavo who was will ever return.

Because the feeding tube is deemed a "medical treatment," its removal is comparable to turning off a respirator. The death of Terri's tired body will have been passively achieved: no one need be accused of doing direct harm.

It's too easy for us. And it is barbaric.

Keeping food and water from Mrs. Schiavo, so that the slow dying goes on for weeks, dishonors the memory of who she once was, dishonors our humanity.

Stopping Terri's few bodily functions as humanely and swiftly as possible would require courage and compassion - the kind of personal and spiritual accountability we have lost in our unseemly need to be right, to feel good, to move on, to Prozac our way out of intimations of mortality.

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