It seems strange that a family feud over the life of one severely brain-damaged woman could capture so much attention. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, a cardiac surgeon, decided it was necessary to make his own diagnosis based on four-year old video tape. Congress met in emergency session, and President Bush signed a bill in his slippers moving the Schiavo case from state to federal courts. By doing so he turned his back on longstanding conservative efforts to strengthen state power, and a Texas law he himself signed that mandates the removal of life support for the children of indigent parents.
There were no guarantee that the conflict over Terry Schiavo's feeding tube would garner even one headline, much less dominate them for weeks. Domestic disputes are daily stuff in America. In Columbus we have a dispute over the life of a brain damaged infant, with the father – who has been indicted for for causing said brain damage— had been campaigning to keep his son on life support. The simple fact is that many people try hard to bring their pet cause to public eye. Few succeed, even at a modest level.
The reason the Schiavo case is in the public eye is that the life of Terry Schiavo mirrors a question faced by humanity itself? "What is the nature of life?” Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to put our pet cat to sleep if it suffered far less. But we aren’t talking about cats, we’re talking about human beings, and decisions made about human beings may also be made about us.
In a recent editorial in the New York Times, conservative commentator David Brooks put it succinctly, arguing that moral argument for protecting all life was strong, but did not really fit with the reality we face. The liberal argument is that life is not an on or off switch, but a continuum between a full life and meaningless existence in many ways much better fits reality, but lacks a clear moral division.
Brooks is right. Heartbeat, pupil dilation, these are clearly definable borders between life and unlife. And for most of human history they have served well. A century, perhaps a half-century earlier the case of Terry Schiavo could not have happened. Mrs. Schiavo would have died from the lack of the mental capacity needed to chew and swallow. She would have starved no matter what anyone wanted. But not today. We have ventilators to force air into people’s lungs, kidney machines that can cleanse the blood, we transplant major organs and are building mechanical replacements for them as well. We have even begun meddling with genes themselves, all in the name of preserving life. Many times such uses are good and appropriate. But it is reasonable to ask if that always so.
The Biblical Book of Genesis offers insights into our condition. The story of Adam and Eve is not the literal truth, but rather a metaphor for the human condition. In it Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the Tree of Life, and having eaten they become aware. Suddenly they realize they are naked, and when God visits them next He sees they have begun to fashion clothing.
The story is not so much about disobedience and nudity than it is about exploration and awareness. By eating of the fruit, the first humans took a new direction. From it they gained awareness. The Garden itself is a metaphor, a place of joyous innocence free of moral choice. If you are not aware of moral choice, that ignorance frees you from facing the consequences of your decisions. Once Adam and Eve knew they were naked, they had to do something about it. God was not upset over the fig leaves, but rather over their disobedience, an act which was the price of their awareness.
God then drives Adam and Eve from the Garden, but really their own actions did that. Once you have forsaken innocence, it cannot be returned. There is no such thing as 'secondary ignorance'. Adam and Eve had to leave, to step out from a binary existence, to a murky, grayscale world. Rarely again would their choices be so clear. They could not return to our garden, and neither can we.
That is why Terry Schiavo’s life and death have captured our imagination. She is not a merely a severely brain damaged woman, but the sort of puzzle a child faces as they approach adulthood. If we have created the technology to preserve life, we must also face the possibility that our tools will preserve life beyond the point where life can still be called 'living’. We must face life and death not as absolutes, but as points on a continuum. That poses questions that may have no clear or obvious answers, but must be answered nonetheless.
The question of Terry Shiavo hangs upon the question of whether or not a persistive vegetative state really constitutes life. The debate over abortion largely hangs upon when one decides that life begins. Conception offers a bright line, easily drawn. B ut is it really so clear when a fertilized egg is automatically ejected at menstruation when it is fertilized in the womb rather than fallopian tubes? When exactly does a grouping of cells become a human? The famed Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision hung upon the fact that neither scientists or theologians could agree upon the point when a fetus became a human being.
Today, humanity is no longer innocent. We face many challenges both to our values system and to our survival as a species. We are changing the face of our planet in ways that may destroy us. Our decisions now may carry the force of life and death, not just for a few men but for our planet. But we cannot close our eyes and pretend these choices do not exist, or that we can go back. Like Adam and Eve, once our eyes have been opened they can never be closed again. Eden has been forever closed off.
The difference between an adult and a child is that adults try to face problems squarely and deal with them rather than deny they exist or ignore them and hope they go away. The societies that are most successful, those that move on face unpleasant and difficult choices squarely. Adam and Eve were children, who did not understand their world or the forces that shaped it. Today, using the tools of science, we do understand those things. We are no longer innocent.
The issues we face today are not the problems of youth or innocence. The questions posed by the case of Terry Schiavo are not for children but adults. The moral dilemmas and conflicts of today are not steps backward, but rather natural growing pains on the way to social adulthood.