You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Schiavo Taught

If Terri Schiavo will have been a martyr for any cause, it will be for the cause of moral reflection in America. This is not obvious, of course. The Schiavo "debate" has constituted one of the great degradations in modern American life. This controversy about virtue in America has been a perfect storm of American vices, as our grand national traditions of sanctimony and publicity combined to make a mockery of reasoned deliberation about difficult problems. And yet, the paradoxical effect of this rank and inescapable spectacle has been to incite an entire population to thought. Suddenly we are all speculating about the feeding tubes in our futures. Millions of Americans have been asked by these events to arrive at an understanding of how they might wish to die, which is also an understanding of how they might wish to live. We have been collectively inducted by Terri Schiavo into the harrowing intellectual circumstances of the new age of moral-medical perplexity. This is the poor woman's gift to her shallow society. We are all bioethicists now.

Historians of the American right may record that the Schiavo affair marked a momentous victory of populism over conservatism, and of religious philosophy over political philosophy. One of the most precious teachings of conservatism, after all, was to beware the tyranny of politics, to deny the sway of the public sphere over the private sphere, to restrain the state and inhibit its interference in ordinary lives. But was the personal ever more the political than outside that hospice in Florida, and in the ecclesiastical halls of Tom DeLay's and Dennis Hastert's House? All the sagacious boundaries were smashed. The machinery of government was twisted to the uses of an ideology and a family. And the president of the United States was complicit in this disfigurement. When George W. Bush made his dramatic and demagogic flight back to Washington in the middle of the night to sign that wretched bill—he must be a man of principle, he interrupted his vacation—he besmirched his oath of office, insofar as he swore to preserve and protect the Constitution, which is to say, to serve in a republic of laws. A state court in Florida had ruled against Schiavo's parents, but the president wanted its ruling abrogated. He, too, was answering to a higher authority.

Yet how did that Florida court know with confidence what Terri Schiavo's wishes were? It is a perfectly valid question. The court did have her husband's word; but it suited the Christian right to forget that the Bible defines marriage ("therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife") precisely as a usurpation of parents by spouses. More significantly, the Schiavo controversy exposed for all to see the antinomianism of the American right. It is not interested in laws, it is interested in outcomes. If the courts fail to confirm its view of what is right, then the courts must be circumvented, either by other courts or by legislatures or by executive action. The conservative press is now frothing with scorn for the judiciary. If the judiciary had ruled for "life," the conservative press would be frothing with praise.

And, alongside the antinomianism of the American right, there was the legalism of the American left, which once again repaired to judges for enlightenment about the quandaries of life. There was an awful loss of interest in compassion among those who were carrying the day, a procedural virulence. What would have been so wrong, really, if Michael Schiavo had agreed to let his wife's parents keep her alive? The liberals who were so passionate that Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die also possessed no certain knowledge of her wishes; but they carried on as if the answer to this terrible question was plain. So it is worth insisting that law is not the same as morality, even if it includes moral considerations. A judge is not a priest. A judge is not a philosopher.

Both the left's love of the courts and the right's hatred of the courts have the consequence of relieving the individual of his or her duties as a moral agent. Enough of this. There is no fleeing the fact of our moral autonomy. When liberals chose to oppose the feeding tube, they were acting as autonomous moral agents, on the basis of reasons. When conservatives chose to support the feeding tube, they were acting as autonomous moral agents, on the basis of reasons. Or so they should have been acting when they were instead waiting upon various institutions and authorities to release them from the hardship of choice and replace responsibility with obedience. The private inquiry into what is true and good is not relativism, it is the reality of ethical existence. This, too, is the legacy of Terri Schiavo: However we are guided in the justification of our beliefs, finally we have only our own consciences upon which to rely in the dark.