A principled and fundamental opposition to the savage murder of Terri Schiavo
By G. Stolyarov II
By the time you read this, chances are that Terri Schiavo will be dead. In a land of plenty, where her parents are more than willing to feed her, where millions of thoughtful and concerned citizens have campaigned for her continued provision of sustenance, she is nonetheless condemned to wither away, literally, by a method that would be considered cruel and unusual punishment when applied to the worst of serial rapist-murderers: starvation. Private money and time has been volunteered to support her; Bob and Mary Schindler, Ms. Schiavo's parents, have, in a blatant display of statist intrusion, been denied the ability to use it. Private aid has been offered in the form of ten activists who had sought to personally bring water to Ms. Schiavo. The activists have been arrested and imprisoned. Even legislators, the President, and Governor Bush of Florida have expressed their sympathies for Ms. Schiavo. Their attempts to finally use the powers of government in a manner in which they should be used, namely, for the protection of individual life against violations thereof, have been cruelly rebuked by a string of arbitrary court decisions, often offered without any explanation as to the reasons behind them.
All this is done at the whim of a blatant adulterer and sadist, Ms. Schiavo's "husband," Michael, who has lived with another woman for years after Ms. Schiavo's incapacitation in 1990, and has even fathered illegitimate children with her. Rather than divorcing Terri, as would have been the most fitting solution in a situation where his romantic interests obviously lie elsewhere, and transferring guardianship of Terri to parents who have actively sought it, Mr. Schiavo has spent large amounts of money in an active quest to kill Terri by forcing the removal of her feeding tube. Mr. Schiavo was faced with a choice of letting somebody live and not paying a cent, and incurring significant personal expenses to kill someone. He chose the latter, and has pursued that course since 1993. What can be inferred about his character? Who but a vicious sadist would launch a crusade of twelve years just to terminate somebody's life?
Of course, there are financial interests involved; Mr. Schiavo is not spending money "only" to kill Terri. He is spending money to inherit Terri's money, which cannot happen while she still lives. According to the Terri-Schindler Schiavo Foundation, in 1992, Terri received an aggregate sum of $1.59 million via a malpractice suit, the award intended to pay for her care over a life expectancy of fifty years. Of that money, about half has mysteriously disappeared in the first year and six months, while another $440,000 were spent by Michael Schiavo on legal procedures to hasten his wife's death. In the meantime, however, some $200,000 still remain in the fund, a considerable sum. It is telling, however, that Mr. Schiavo considers the life of his own wife to be far less valuable than such a monetary amount. As Terri's guardian. Michael Schiavo is also the heir to her medical fund, a privilege that he cannot retain upon divorcing her and renouncing his guardianship. Might this be why he is so staunch in resisting the Schindlers' attempts to transfer Terri into their care? If so, Mr. Schiavo is not just a murderer, but also a thief. By seeking money that belongs to Terri, he wishes to obtain the unearned, at the expense of the individual who legitimately owns it.
The present situation may be summarized thus: a sly, immoral opportunist and his cadre of professional lawyers have usurped the mechanisms of government to stifle millions of conscientious citizens, officials, and legislators alike and, in a bizarre string of events, silence a massive opposition to murder and theft. The mainstream media has collaborated by largely portraying his case and pursuit as legitimate, and seeking to eradicate from public discourse any suggestion that Mr. Schiavo's motives may be dishonest or driven by financial parasitism, as well as any categorical defense of Terri's right to life on rational and moral grounds. Yet such a defense is urgently needed, especially since Terri Schiavo's death stands to establish a precedent whereby each individual's life will no longer be his own, but rather subject to the whim of the first relative who does not wish to be "inconvenienced" and the first judge willing to employ the coercive hand of government to satisfy this whim. Only from a consistent application of the fundamental concept of individual rights can an intellectual bastion be constructed to condemn Michael Schiavo and firmly block any further comparable intrusions upon the liberty and sovereignty of persons themselves incapable of active resistance.
The Rational Faculty
Each individual is, by his fundamental and inextricable identity, a rational being, with a means of accurately identifying and analyzing reality with his mind. The individual's rational faculty is his sole gateway to knowledge, and the sole means by which he can direct the application of his knowledge to the external world. Nobody else's activity of any sort can substitute for the individual's own thinking, just as nobody else's activity can substitute for an individual's own digestion. Each individual is also fundamentally a volitional being, and can choose to default on the responsibility of thinking for himself, thereby also choosing to bear the consequences. However, whatever he chooses, it remains irrefutably true that he still possesses the capacity to be rational. From this capacity it is implied that he ought to be allowed to be rational, i.e., that he has a natural right to use his reason and benefit from the applications thereof.
Nobody should be permitted to intervene with another individual's use of reason, nor to substitute his reasoning for another's and force another to agree with or accept the consequences of his reasoning unless the other explicitly consents. When two individuals come to an agreement, each has used his own reasoning to embrace it. When, however, such a clear, unambiguous agreement is not present, the individual who presumes to place his thoughts in the stead of another's is committing the initiation of force, which is the opposite of reason. Since all natural rights are derived from the human capacity to reason, all violations of natural rights are derived from the initiation of force by some individuals against others. Michael Schiavo is precisely initiating force against Terri by compelling the removal of her feeding tube; he is thus seeking to subvert the natural rights that Terri, as a human and thus rational being, possesses.
Property in Oneself
The only manner in which reason can have any concrete, material expression is by means of property, i.e., those material entities which belong to an individual as a consequence of his use of reason. Even the very capacity to reason itself is dependent on property, as the individual mind is a material entity, and, were it not for the concrete biological mechanisms of the brain, there would not be abstract thought. Thus, to be able to reason, the individual must have a property in his physical mind. In order for his physical mind to function, an individual must also have property in his physical body, since, not only is the mind part of the body but, without the proper functioning of the remainder of the body, the mind would not be able to survive. In summation, the right to the use of one's reason implies the right to property in oneself and, as a corollary, the right to use one's reason to determine what shall happen to one's mind and body.
To apply this to Terri Schiavo's case and cases similar to it, the right of property in oneself implies the right to consciously accept or refuse whatever medical treatment pertains to one's situation. Ms. Schiavo, prior to her paralysis, had the option of specifying, in writing, whether or not she would wish to continue to be maintained via a feeding tube in the event of such incapacitation. She has not, however, exercised that option. Had she stated in a manner beyond all doubt that she would not have wished to be sustained indefinitely, then her "guardians" would have had no legitimate choice but to obey her desires. However, Ms. Schiavo did not state this beyond all doubt. The only indication that we have that she might have desired this course of action is the word of her husband. But should we blindly trust the word of an individual known to be immoral, dishonest, and manipulative?
Even if Michael Schiavo had had an exemplary reputation for telling the truth, however, hearsay is not the equivalent of objective, unambiguous proof. If Person X had forced his wife to drink ten glasses of vodka and subsequently die of an alcohol overdose, and stated in court that his wife told him that she would like to drink all that vodka, Person X would have been convicted of first-degree murder. Anybody can pretend that anybody else said anything conceivable, especially when referring to private one-on-one conversations that can rarely be corroborated. Since written, ubiquitously accessible evidence to the assertion that Ms. Schiavo wished to deny treatment via a feeding tube is not available, we must presume that she would have wanted such treatment, again following an argument derived from universal principles.
The Implicit Decision to Live
Terri Schiavo made the decision to continue living after she experienced her tragic collapse on February 25, 1990. She made that decision just as you, the reader, are making that decision right now by continuing to read this article and not dying instantaneously. As the philosopher Ayn Rand would have stated, each individual is faced with a fundamental existential choice: to live or to die. Every second of his continued existence affirms the former selection. The only way to consistently make the latter choice is to become silent, spout no theories, and die. (Even those who attempt suicide do not fit into that category, since, to decide to commit suicide, one must be alive and thus must implicitly affirm the choice to live; to choose to live and die simultaneously is an irreconcilable contradiction and thus immoral, since morality stems from purely consistent reason. This is also why, whatever the legality of such acts may be, any deed committed intentionally and to the detriment of one's life is immoral, as it exhibits the suicidist's contradiction to a lesser extent.)
One does not have to have the full use of his faculties at some given moment to be making the implicit choice to live at that moment. When one is asleep, one has scant use of any of his volitional faculties. Nonetheless, it is a commonsense presumption that the sleeping person implicitly wishes to live, and it would be a crime to kill him. Similarly, an infant has no systematic, unambiguous means of communicating his desire to live, yet no sensible individual would suggest that the infant lacks such a desire. Yet many infants are even less capable of sustaining themselves without external assistance than Terri Schiavo. While Terri can at least have a feeding tube connected to her and automatically deliver nutritious substances to her organism at regulated time intervals, an infant has to be lifted from its crib and given a bottle (or spoon-fed) by another person every time it is hungry. If the proponents of Terri's death wished to be consistent (and being consistent is the sole way to avoid being dishonest), would they suggest that the guardians of all infants ought to be allowed to terminate them because the infants are in "persistent vegetative states"?
No Guardian Sovereignty
The fact that it is blatantly immoral for parents to kill or, more generally, abuse or neglect their children illustrates a more general principle with regard to the status of guardians and the limitations on them. The guardian is an individual who has taken custody of an individual in some manner incapacitated from the full use of his rational faculty, either by physical limitations (as with the paralyzed and comatose) or by a lack of knowledge to serve as data for the rational faculty to process (as with children). In all cases, the assumption of guardianship is a choice, made either explicitly or implicitly (as with conceiving children, for example). There is no such thing as "guardian sovereignty," however. Guardianship does not presume ownership of another person and does not nullify the fact that the person being "guarded" still holds a property in himself, i.e., his mind and body.
So long as individuals overseen by guardians are still alive, they still possess the capacity to exercise their will in at least some part of their lives. So long as they can do so, they should be allowed to do so, and no one may overrule them in these areas. In all other areas necessary for survival, but in which those individuals are physically unable to act or incapable of making decisions objectively beneficial to themselves, their guardians can only perform those actions which unquestionably advance those individuals' lives. They may feed a person like Terri Schiavo whose paralysis prevents her from feeding herself, but they may not give her poison in place of food, or starve her while she is under their care (which is precisely what Michael Schiavo is doing). He who undertakes the role of guardian is never legitimately a master or a ruler, but rather one who consents, of his own will, to help an individual, and only to help him, where help is needed. Guardianship is not a position of power; it is the position of a servant to another's most essential survival requirements. Nobody is coerced into being a guardian, and nobody with any degree of moral character should enter the role of guardian without seeking to sincerely fulfill the obligations involved, including the obligation never to kill the "guarded," and always to seek to prolong the life of the "guarded" using all pertinent non-sacrificial techniques, given that the "guarded" makes the implicit choice to live in all situations.
Nobody who is "guarded" can make an intelligent, informed, fully responsible decision to refuse medical treatment or to act in any manner to the detriment of his own life. To illustrate, if an adult wished to smoke cigarettes and thus act to the detriment of his own life, his action would be of questionable morality, but legal and within the scope of his natural rights. It should be both immoral and illegal for a child to smoke cigarettes. A child's guardian, being entrusted with the child's survival for a certain period of time, must ensure that the child commits only acts clearly beneficial to his life or at least harmless thereto. To allow the child to smoke (or to starve himself), even when the child explicitly states that he wishes to commit such acts, is gross negligence and contradicts entirely the very purpose of guardianship. This principle is not unique to children, but rather applies to everyone over whom guardianship exists, as its roots are not contained in the age of the "guarded," but rather in their incapacity to adequately use their rational faculties in all things.
The guardian must allow the guarded to use their rational faculties where they have shown clear capacity to do so (i.e. where they make autonomous decisions benefiting their lives) and must intervene with the decisions of the "guarded" where they have shown an incapacity to reason (i.e. where they either make detrimental decisions or fail to make beneficial ones). Here, beneficial decisions are defined as those prolonging an individual's life, and detrimental ones as those curtailing it, with such definitions stemming from the fact that life is the ultimate value and, without life, no further pursuit of values is possible.
If a guardian is either unable or unwilling to fulfill his obligations, he should renounce his role and facilitate a successful transfer of guardianship to somebody else. In the Terri Schiavo case, an incompetent and malicious guardian is unwilling to abdicate in favor of competent and caring guardians, the Schindlers. Due to ulterior motives, moral degeneracy, or both, he has betrayed his promise (implicit in guardianship) to only act to prolong Terri's life.
No "Right to Die"
There is no such thing "right to die." There is only a right to live. The right to live does not mean that one will be guaranteed to live at somebody else's expense. That is, somebody's right to live can only imply negative obligations on the part of others not to kill or harm that individual. Each individual with a right to live still has to make provisions to facilitate his own life; the right merely guarantees that nobody else can legitimately interfere with or disrupt these provisions. Death may occur as a result of an individual defaulting on his right to live, but this does not imply a positive "right to die." An individual's positive "right to die" would be the right to have somebody kill him, i.e., actively interfere with his life and his right thereto. The right to live and the "right to die" are mutually incompatible. One leads to individual sanctity and sovereignty and the other—to "mercy killings" and collectivist utilitarianism, the horrid spectacle of the masses, the bureaucrats, or sly opportunists like Michael Schiavo deciding whose lives are or are not worth living.
If it were Michael Schiavo's personal money that was sustaining Terri on life support, he could have legitimately denied her the use of this money (provided that he were to facilitate a transfer of guardianship beforehand to ensure that Terri did not die as a result of the decision). A right to life does not imply a positive obligation on somebody's behalf to keep one alive (except in the case of a guardian, who has made the choice, cemented by the force of law, to keep the "guarded" alive, and must thus carry out all the obligations concordant with such a choice). However, the money used to keep Terri alive is Terri's own, having been awarded to her in the malpractice lawsuit.
Moreover, the money that the Schindlers would have been using to keep her alive would have been their own, too, voluntarily spent on her upkeep. By interfering with the use of Terri's money to sustain her life and the wishes of the Schindlers to use their money to sustain her life, Michael Schiavo is committing a clear infraction of the right to life, actively impeding the use of property not his own to sustain a life not his own. That he seeks to do this in the name of the "right to die" further underscores such a concept's immorality and fundamental incompatibility with the right to life.
It should be further added that the realm of rights only exists because the realm of morality exists, and the realm of morality exists only because life exists, since morality is a systematic set of principles necessary for the advancement of the individual's life. A rational morality must take life as a first premise, given that all values presuppose life and it is impossible to have any values whatsoever in the absence of life. Thus the "right to die" is by definition outside life, thus, outside morality, thus, outside any legitimate rights.
The Legitimate Purpose of Government
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are entitled to the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and that "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…" It is saddening and frightening that the United States Government has committed a 180-degree turnaround from this position, maintaining an active presence in every conceivable endeavor that would violate individual rights, yet staunchly refusing to intervene to protect them. Our government steals one-third of our paychecks, is capable of confiscating our property at whim, coerces us into pyramid schemes we would have sued had they been offered by private parties, and employs our funds to sustain an institutional underclass of criminals, addicts, and slothful bums. Yet it feigns a respect for "the rule of law" and postures to exhibit "restraint" whenever the matter comes to actually protecting somebody's right to life! Furthermore, our present government is corrupt not merely in its inaction but in its positive steps taken to intervene with the property rights of Terri Schiavo and the Schindlers and order the feeding tube removed in a manner that would not have occurred without the interference of the coercive hand of the state.
To those who would wish to limit the power of government, I say this: you would not wish for the power of government to punish murderers and thieves to be limited. You would not wish for the power of government to protect the innocent against invasions of their rights to life by such murderers and thieves to be limited. If indeed government's fundamental purpose is to prevent violations of core individual rights, then this purpose must apply, no matter whose rights are being violated, who is violating them, or how they are being violated. If a husband kills his wife, the government has the obligation to step in and prosecute the husband for murder. In addition, it cannot be overstated that the government has the obligation to prevent clear murderous intent from being actualized, even in the face of opposition from some of its members or their decisions. To presume the contrary would be to presume that the United States Government should have obeyed the immoral Dred Scott decision of 1857, which denied a black man the right to challenge his slavery in the Supreme Court in the same callous and anti-moral manner wherewith the current Supreme Court had rejected the Schindlers' appeal. A moral government must violate immoral laws and disobey immoral rulings. The only moral course of action in this situation would have been an executive order either from President Bush or Governor Bush, depriving Michael Schiavo of custody of Terri, much as an abusive or negligent parent should be deprived of guardianship over his child. Furthermore, Terri should have been transferred into the custody of the Schindlers, who are more than willing to support her, without any manner of burden on the state or the taxpayers.
Since the murder of Terri Schiavo opposes all principles of reason, morality, and natural law, why have, as polls show, three-fourths of the U.S. population and a string of court rulings arrayed themselves to support it? There exists an unfortunate and deeply ingrained prejudice amongst many Americans against the comatose, who, by the fact of their paralysis and incapacity, are considered something less than human, in a blatant denial of the fact that the fundamental identity of an individual as a rights-bearing entity cannot be changed by an alteration in physical state. The most blatant example of this prejudice is the frequent utterance of certain persons to the effect of, "I would never want to be maintained in such a ‘vegetative state,' and I do not think anybody would." (Let the reader pay careful attention to what is said in his vicinity during the next several days, and he will surely come upon a permutation of that expression.) As for the courts, judicial objectivity and respect for absolute natural law have been dead since the era of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the originator of that pernicious idea that court rulings must reflect the ever-shifting opinions of the mob. The courts have ruled against Terri Schiavo because the majority prejudice is against Terri Schiavo, and neither the courts nor the majority have yet been able to free themselves from the tyranny of Oliver Holmes's ghost.
If one wishes not to be sustained in the event of a coma, he has but to specify his wishes in writing. He does not, however, have the right to project his wishes onto others and advocate that others be subjected to the same course to which he would have consigned himself, especially since such a course is a self-contradictory one, undercutting the individual's implicit choice to live. If you, the reader, do not think your life would be worth living in a coma, I would disagree with you, but I grant you the sovereignty to make that decision. I do not grant you or any number of your sympathizers the sovereignty to make that decision for me, Terry Schiavo, or anybody who is not yourself, for attitudes far different from the "all or nothing" approach to life exist.
Personally, were I in Ms. Schiavo's position, I would wish to be maintained, at all costs, enduring all pain and inaction, finding ways to cope with all losses of faculties, provided that I retained that all-encompassing, fundamental value: life itself. There is much value in speech, logical thought, and productive work—all things unfortunately inaccessible to people in Ms. Schiavo's condition. However, there is also value—inexhaustible value—in every breath one takes, every bit of food that nourishes one's body, every instant at which one's eyes are able to just observe the world around oneself. There is a value in having blood course through one's veins, in having one's heart beat and one's lungs inhale and exhale—whether or not they are supported by a respirator. Even in the most piercing pain there is some marginal value, the value of knowing that one's body is still responsive, still defiant against the perils that seek to undermine it. The sum of these values is less than what the average healthy individual can pursue, but it is a positive sum, nonetheless, separated by an immense gulf from the permanent zero which is death. The comatose are not less than human; they are not any less human than you or I when we choose to enter a state of sleep. The minimal manner by which we can respect their humanity is by not actively depriving them of what precious values they have remaining in their grasp.
My treatise, and my moral sentiments, come too late to save Terri Schiavo. Even if she yet lives, my pleas for justice will likely fall on deaf ears in our government for at least the next several decades—so radical has been the twentieth century's departure from the culture of life that no less than a comparable time period will be necessary to fully undo the damage. As an upper-middle-class abstract intellectual, however, this is the extent of the activism on her behalf that I can permit myself, especially given that my fundamental concern is more far-sighted. I seek, above all, to prevent the advent an era when one's relatives, or one's community, or one's country, or one's Party, could make the decision that one is expendable simply because one's condition somehow deviates from the "normal" (i.e. the statistically average). Do not think that the presumption that the lives of the comatose or "vegetative" are not worth living will end there; history has shown that principles cannot be arbitrarily limited in their application, that once a flawed premise is granted in any area, it will, like a cancer, gradually but inexorably spread to all others. If this murder does not generate a suitable level of moral outrage and legislative backlash, we shall soon be seeing "implied consent" for the termination of handicapped children, amputees, the chronically ill, the elderly, the "mentally ill," people with slow reaction times who cannot respond at lighting-speed to the demands of the Fatherland, and, finally… you. Whoever you are, your organism likely has, does, or will exhibit some deficiency requiring medical care, major or minor. What if somebody else decides that it is not worthwhile to "squander societal resources" on the fulfillment of this need? Given that, with the murder of Terri Schiavo, property rights and individualism have been wantonly tossed aside, what would prevent somebody from making that assertion and being supported by every precedent from the post-Terri world?
The scenarios I propose are extreme and we, still only at the beginning of this particular slippery slope, might find their coming only remotely conceivable, if at all. May the reader be reminded, however, that, were the Founding Fathers warned that the government would exploit the interstate commerce clause of their Constitution to impose economic tyranny, they would have found the situation inconceivable as well. Even were people in the 1930s informed that the State would employ the social security system as a de facto national ID, they would likely have dismissed the possibility. Yet, as Aristotle wrote, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." In this case, the toll in human lives will be multiplied a thousandfold as well, unless the travesty is recognized, its perpetrators punished, and an unwavering promise made that never again shall one person's whim be the justification for another person's savage execution.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and Objective Medicine. He is also Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus here.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2013, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.