Remembering Is Not Good Enough

Judie Brown
June 10 2008
Reproduced with Permission

We move along in the pro-life movement at a snail's pace in so many areas, or so it seems. There are so many attacks on the sanctity of life that it is as though torrential rains of evil are falling on the human race as we rush from place to place in an effort to stem the horror, with nothing more than a small pail to assist in catching the fallout.

It is the David against Goliath scenario, to be sure. I feel this is especially the case in the area of medical care for the severely disabled and those who are constantly marginalized because they cannot speak for themselves. It is for this reason that the two reports I read this weekend troubled me to the very depths of my soul.

In Alaska, there is a disabled patient whose life is at risk because an Anchorage hospital wants to stop treating her. On May 9, Mari Chamberlain's heart temporarily stopped and she is now in a coma. Officials at the hospital believe that there is little to no hope of her recovery, and so the hospital wants to put her on what they are calling "palliative care."

Palliative care, however, is defined as pain management, not as a vehicle for assuring the death of someone whose life has been deemed unworthy to be lived. However, in today's age of double-speak, some have taken the liberty of using the term "palliative care" to describe administering sedation while life support is stopped - a regimen designed to end a patient's life, not relieve him of his pain.

According to Mari Chamberlain's attorneys, this is precisely what the hospital has in mind.

Now enters the Alaska Supreme Court, which has extended a temporary restraining order indefinitely so that her husband is able to pursue every legal means possible to protect the life of his vulnerable wife. For, as Alliance Defense Fundattorney Kenneth Kirk told the media, "Nowadays, some medical professionals really seem to have changed their values and philosophy. They're much more oriented toward terminating life support."

What I would add to Kirk's assessment is not only that, in many cases, medical professionals have grown insensitive to the innate dignity of the human being, but also their primary interest is focused on value judgments they make regarding who has a "quality of life" sufficient to deserve the treatment they receive. Far too often, we hear the word "futile" used to describe the very treatment that is in fact being used to keep a patient comfortable.

It is as though the person himself is viewed as a futile life simply because someone else deems it inappropriate to continue providing basic care and treatment. The vulnerable are becoming targets in a society fascinated with good health and less and less willing to accept suffering as part of the human condition.

Chamberlain's case is a bit unusual, however, in that in most of such cases, it is a family member who seeks to terminate the patient's life, and it is the medical profession, coupled with the court system, that aligns itself with the desire to end that life. In cases such as Lauren Richardson's, one family member is fighting to preserve her life while another is fighting to end it. Cases like this are a bit more similar to that of Terri Schiavo than the Chamberlain case, at least at this point.

But either way, it is clear that being vulnerable and in need of medical care is not a good position to be in these days.

This brings me to the second case I read about this weekend: A Florida woman could face death by starvation if her husband has his way, even though the woman's mother is fighting to preserve her daughter's life. Karen Weber was hospitalized last December due to a stroke that has left her unable to speak. Her husband is arguing that she is in a vegetative state and even though Karen did not sign a living will, she would not want to live in her current condition.

While Karen's husband states that he does not want this case to be compared with the Terri Schiavo case, one wonders what else we could compare it with, but that is not the crux of the problem in this case either.

Regardless of whether we are talking about a hospital attempting to end the life of a patient or a family member with the same goal, the obvious concern we should all have is that such cases are occurring with increasing frequency. Or perhaps it is simply the case that media outlets are becoming more focused on reporting such cases. It is my suspicion that if the truth were known, decisions to end the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves are being made in enormous numbers, far beyond what we can imagine or would choose to think about.

Either way, it occurs to me that the proponents of euthanasia are making strides that I truly never imagined we would see - at least not in my lifetime.

Terri Schiavo's case taught us a great deal about the fragility of a human being's life. Many of us fought with her wonderful family to protect her from death, and we remember the sorrow and the anguish suffered by her parents and her siblings. Try as they might, they could not overcome the desires of Terri's husband to end her life and the arrogance of the court that agreed with him.

But in today's cruel, inhumane world of self-absorption and self-satisfaction, remembering Terri is not enough.

Much more has to be done to help our fellow citizens understand that a human being's intrinsic worth and dignity do not depend on his or her ability to communicate or to act on his own behalf. The person who is most vulnerable in the human family is the one who should deserve and should receive the greatest outpouring of mercy, love and unselfish sacrifice.

When others are discussing the uselessness of a human being's life, we must insist that there is no such thing as a life unworthy to be lived. For as Professor Robert George said during an interview about Terri Schiavo's right to life,

From a moral vantage point, it can be, though it will not always be, permissible to decline treatment - even potentially life-saving treatment - when one's reason for declining the treatment is something other than the belief that one's life, or the life of the person for whom one is making a decision, lacks sufficient value to be worth living. What we must avoid, always and everywhere, is yielding to the temptation to regard some human lives, or the lives of human beings in certain conditions, as lebensunwerten Lebens, lives unworthy of life. Since the life of every human being has inherent worth and dignity, there is no valid category of lebensunwerten Lebens. Any society that supposes that there is such a category has deeply morally compromised itself. As Leon Kass recently reminded us in a powerful address at the Holocaust Museum, it was supposedly enlightened and progressive German academics and medical people who put their nation on the road to shame more than a decade before the Nazis rose to power by promoting a doctrine of eugenics based precisely on the proposition that the lives of some human beings - such as the severely retarded - are unworthy of life.