Schiavo and The Slippery Slope of Medical Ethics

March 22, 2005 — Leave a comment

I haven’t commented on the Terry Schiavo case of yet for the simple reason that the internet is already full of words on both sides of the issue. However, Christy at Dry Bones Dances offered this post yesterday which says much of what I would like to say with far more elegance than I could ever muster.

Another blogger who will go nameless (no need for pissing matches on this issue) expressed her dismay at how our country could allow the consideration of the removal of the feeding tube. While I agree that life is sacred, I do want to remind people that feeding tubes are removed daily. They are removed from elderly persons who have lived full lives and whose designated representatives with durable powers of attorney decide that there is no hope for any quality of life. As a pastor, I sit with folks regularly who have to make decisions about the continuation of care for loved ones. These issues are never easy, for no one ever wants to be accused of giving up. Yet, every day there are persons who believe that the humane decision (and the decision that is consistent with the wishes of their broken loved one) is to stop all treatment and let nature take its course.

Letting go is hard, and we want to hold on to all possibilities for healing. I can’t imagine what that is like for any parent to have to make a decision on continuing care for a child. I remember being with a family at Georgia Baptist Hospital whose loved one had been on full life support for three weeks. There was no brain function. She was effectively dead, although the heart continued to beat. Yet, they couldn’t bring themselves to turn off the machines. They held out for a miraculous healing, and believed that turning off the machines represented a lack of faith in God’s power to heal (a lack of faith which would “restrict” God’s power in healing). At some point we were able to help them see that the machines weren’t God, and that it was time to leave it all up to God’s decision. The woman died within 24 hours of having life support discontinued.

The issue in this case continues to go back to what Hauerwas calls “anthropodicy.” the problem that we are frankly not in control of our destinies. In a previous era Ms. Schiavo’s case would not be an issue for she wouldn’t be with us at all. But we think that we can control and mediate life, that science can help us control the uncontrollable. When we are faced with the reality that we are indeed frail and often out of control, we lash out in fear.

This case scares us, for it reminds us that we may all someday be like Ms. Schiavo, and our loved ones may be fighting over what to do. If anything bears witness to the need for a good living will AND a durable power of attorney, this does.

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