Friday, March 25, 2005

If the tragic case of Terri Schiavo shows nothing else, it shows how easily “the right to die” can become the right to kill. It is hard to believe anyone, regardless of their position on euthanasia, would have chosen the agony of starvation and dehydration as the way to end someone’s life.

A New York Times headline on March 20 tried to assure us: “Experts say ending feeding can lead to a gentle death” but you can find experts to say anything. In a Dec. 2, 2002, story in the same New York Times, people starving in India were reported as dying, “often clutching pained stomachs.”

No murderer could be executed this way, which would almost certainly be found “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the Constitution, by virtually any court.

Terri Schiavo’s only crime is that she has become an inconvenience — and is caught in the merciless machinery of the law. Those who think law is the answer to our problems need to face the reality that law is a crude and blunt instrument. Make no mistake: As this is written, Terri Schiavo is being killed. She is not being “allowed to die.”

She is not like someone whose breathing, blood circulation, kidney function or other vital work of the body is being performed by machines. What she is getting by machine is what all of us get otherwise every day — food and water. Depriving any of us of food and water would kill us just as surely, and just as agonizingly, as it is killing Terri Schiavo.

Would I want to be kept alive in Terri Schiavo’s condition? No. Would I want to be killed so slowly and painfully? No. Would anyone? I doubt it.

Every member of Terri Schiavo’s family wants her kept alive — except the one person with a vested interest in her death, her husband. Her death will allow him to marry the woman with whom he has lived for years and fathered children.

Legally, he is Terri’s guardian and that legal technicality gives him the right to starve her to death. Courts cannot remove guardians without serious reasons. But they should not refuse to remove guardians who have a clear conflict of interest.

There are no good solutions to this wrenching situation. It is the tragedy of the human condition in its starkest form.

The extraordinary session of Congress, calling members back from around the country, with the president flying back from his home in Texas to be ready to sign legislation dealing with Terri Schiavo, are things that do us credit as a nation.

Even if critics who claim this is done for political or ideological reasons are partially or even wholly correct, they still miss the point. It is the public’s sense of concern — in some cases, outrage — that is reflected by their elected representatives.

What can Congress do — and what effect will it have? We do not know and Congress does not know. Those who push for legislation to save Terri Schiavo are obviously trying to avoid setting a precedent or upsetting the constitutional balance.

It is an old truism that hard cases make bad law. No one wants all such cases to end up in either Congress or the federal courts. But neither do decent people want an innocent woman killed because she was inconvenient and a court refused to recognize her legal guardian’s conflict of interests.

The fervor of those who want to save Terri Schiavo’s life is understandable and should be respected, even by those who disagree. What is harder to understand is the fervor and even venom of those liberals who have gone ballistic — ostensibly over states’ rights, over the constitutional separation of powers, and even over the sanctity of family decisions.

These are not things liberals have any track record of caring about. Is what really bothers them the idea of the sanctity of life and its implication for their abortion issue? Or do they hate any challenge to the supremacy of judges — on which the whole liberal agenda depends — a supremacy that the Constitution never gave the judiciary?

If nothing else comes of all this, there needs to be a national discussion of some humane way to end life in those cases when it must be ended — and this may not be one of those cases.

Thomas Sowell is nationally syndicated columnist.

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