Friday, March 25, 2005


Mrs. Schiavo--the Bright Side

Years ago, I taught in a girls' school. The boys' school was nearby, and often the seventh- and eighth-grade boys hung out after school in the halls where the girls' lockers were. This also happened to be the place I was given to hang an exhibit of photographs of the senior class.

My exhibit consisted of a succession of pictures of the senior girls, about 5 or 6 kids per picture.

Well, the confluence of puerile boys and pictures of girls being what it is, sooner or later somebody drew prominent boobies on some of the pictures with a pen. I'm pretty sure the culprit wasn't one of the girls.

So I marched over to the boys' school during their assembly period, and held forth from the lectern. I made my indignation known, touching both on respect for artwork and (because I didn't want them to think I only cared about myself) respect for the feelings of the girls whose pictures had been defaced. I passed moral judgement on the perpetrator and insisted that the only honorable course for him was to come forth, confess, and apologize to me and to the girls in the picture he'd ruined.

After the assembly, one of the veteran teachers approached me. "You're really naive, you know that?" she snorted, with obvious scorn.

"Oh? Why so?"

"You're never going to get the kid who did that to come forward, you know."

Well, yes, I certainly did know that. But that wasn't the point. The point was to take advantage of the specific situation in order to clarify to kids what proper behavior is, and why. I wasn't talking to the one kid who did the dirty. I was talking to all the kids, hopefully getting them to think a little about respect for public artwork and the subjects of public artwork. That's how values are communicated.

In a similar way--looking at the opportunity it has afforded all of us to clarify our values and our wishes--I can see that a lot of good has come out of the case of Mrs. Schiavo. Actually, her case is far from unique. Life support is denied to hopeless patients more than a thousand times a day in this country. Overwhelmingly, the guardians of those affected agree on that course of action; and when they can't, then it's up to the courts to decide. Also overwhelmingly, Americans approve of this system of dealing with these tragedies.

Support for this system has recently been strengthening, not weakening. Ironically (if that's the right word), for the first time ever, a baby was recently taken off life support in Texas in defiance of its mother's wishes, using a new law put into place by a past Governor of that state--one George W. Bush.

The good that's come of the Terri Schiavo situation is simply that it's gotten many people to look at this unpleasant scenario and think about their own wishes and how to make them known to their loved ones. I think it's very likely that a huge number of Americans now know a whole lot more about the issue than they did a month or two ago. That's a good thing.

Americans have also seen an extremely clear example of what government ought not to do--I'm speaking, of course, of "An Act for the Relief of the Parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo," passed hastily by Congress in blatant disregard for the rule of law and the separation of powers. So far, it's the only thing that's ever gotten George W. Bush to come in to work during one of his many and prolonged vacations (since he's not really the President, I guess he's not needed that much in Washington. He's apparently resumed his pre-election habits, spending roughly two-fifths of his time on vacation). Americans have correctly seen this "Act" as a cynical political one. That's also a good thing, as it's a clear example of a distinction people haven't been making a whole lot lately.

You know the people I really feel for? Not Mrs. Schiavo, whose brain I'm reasonably convinced doesn't permit her even a remote semblance of consciousness. Last night I saw on the news a right-to-life protestor who said, through sobs, "this is tearing me up inside." I believe her. I felt genuine sympathy for her feelings.

But we as a society can't base our laws on that.

The Quotidian Meander

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