Death of Values

Published in the Courier Mail 29 Mar 05

SOMETHING is very wrong with our culture. The tragic story of Terri Schiavo is a case in point. It is a compelling chronicle of the fight between her husband, who is trying to kill her, and her parents, who are trying to keep her alive.

At the age of 27, Schiavo suffered a heart attack that left her with brain damage. She’s not on a ventilator as she can breathe by herself. She is not brain-dead. She is capable of interaction, although to what level remains a hotly debated topic between her husband and her parents. As her husband has denied her rehabilitation for the past 10 years, we will never know what she may have attained.

What Schiavo cannot do is feed herself. Food and water provided by a feeding tube, connected at meal times, is vital to her continued survival. Her husband’s campaign to have the feeding tube removed, so that she starves to death, has been successful and she has now been more than a week without food or water.

Schiavo’s husband has a new partner and has started a new family. However, Schiavo cannot divorce him without his permission, as he is her legal guardian. He also controls the malpractice settlement she was awarded for her medical care, which was more than $US1 million, and he will inherit whatever remains when she dies. Conflict of interest perhaps?

This situation has garnered attention everywhere from the American Congress, to the Vatican, and is being discussed in lounge rooms and Internet chat rooms internationally. How did we reach a point in our civilised Western world where we are debating whether a husband can kill his wife? More importantly, how do we as a society decide who lives and who dies?

We have re-orientated the axis on which that question pivots, and so find ourselves in our current moral quagmire. Within Judeo-Christian cultures, murder has always been considered wrong. We have considered life a gift from God the Creator hence it also was regarded as His alone to take. Civil governments were charged with keeping order and passed laws which made the taking of a human life a criminal act. It was an absolute we all agreed on — the rules of play, if you like.

However, as we have drifted from the notion of our responsibility before God, and embraced moral relativism, we have set ourselves up as the final arbiters of life — and of death.

This change of perspective has profound results. We see this in the abortion rate in our nation. We see this in first the adult euthanasia movement, and now the infant euthanasia movement; witness Dutch doctors currently advocating the killing of terminally ill infants. Australia’s own Dr Peter Singer supports parents being able to kill their disabled babies.

Taking a few steps back to peruse the broad picture, we are faced with a frightening prospect — our social ethic no longer considers human life as having intrinsic value.
Medical advances have made the end-of-life issue complex, to be sure. At what point does pain relief become the agent that kills? At what point can the ventilator be turned off and allow the person who is brain dead to die completely?

These are intricate issues. They must be thoroughly discussed, and support given to anguished relatives. However, these are not, in fact, the issues that are at stake in the Schiavo case.

WHAT is at stake is how our society views those who have physical and mental incapacities — and whether we protect their right to live. All Schiavo needs to survive is food and water — something each of us need.

While we would be arrested for starving a dog to death, it seems to be OK to do this to a disabled person, even though the only person who speaks for her has questionable motives, to say the least.

If your right merely to live needs to be justified, rather than defended, as the Schiavo case highlights, we should all be concerned. Is the measure of our life’s value related to our independence, or ability to contribute to society? Who decides?

Most of us would agree that the intervention into the Schiavo case of the courts and legislature shouldn’t have to happen. However, in a culture that has come adrift, this will not be the last such case.

Like it or not, until we re-anchor our culture to something solid, our elected representatives will be forced to intervene to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Sadly for Schiavo, it appears this time they — or we — have failed her.