Friday, March 25, 2005

The Council for Secular Humanism recently posted an issue statement on the Terri Schiavo case. I disagreed with it somewhat because they tried to make a culture war issue out of it. I sent them a response. I'm including their statement and my response here.

The issue statement I responded to ...

Council for Secular Humanism Issues Statement on Schiavo Case

AMHERST, N.Y. (March 25, 2005)—Theresa "Terri" Schiavo, the Florida resident who has spent the last fifteen years in a persistent vegetative state, has spent recent weeks at the center of a political and legal maelstrom. The courts have consistently found that her husband, Michael Schiavo, is carrying out his wife’s wishes in trying to cease life-support measures; meanwhile, parents Robert and Mary Schindler, arguing that Terri would wish to live, have waged an unrelenting battle to keep her feeding tube inserted.

Spokespeople for the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) say that, as heartrending as the case is, the courts have made the right decision. In a recent statement issued by the Council, David Koepsell, Executive Director of the CSH, says that "fundamentalist political ideologues have seized upon the Terri Schiavo case to make a bold, federal play against individual liberties." (The text of the statement is included below.)

"The Council for Secular Humanism praises the Florida and federal courts’ rulings to let Terri Schiavo's decision to die with dignity stand," Koepsell says, "and we hope that politicians who have interjected themselves into this personal decision, for cynical political gain, will think long and hard about what this means for liberty and justice."

Medical ethicist Richard Hull calls the situation a power grab by religious conservatives and a betrayal of the sanctity of marriage. "Americans will not stand for the burdens of having to defend family decisions, confirmed by state courts, before federal panels," he says. "They will decisively reject such meddlesome moralistic madness and beat back these assaults on reason and decency." Hull urges all Americans put their wishes in writing, such as with a living will: "Until the religious right rediscovers the Bill of Rights," he says, "we must all act to protect ourselves and presume no respect by others for our informal understandings with loved ones."

Meanwhile, other spokespeople caution that the choice might not always be left to the individual: "The public should be made aware that the Catholic Church owns about one third of all hospitals in the United States, many without the public's knowledge," warns Toni Van Pelt, Executive Director of CFI-Florida. "The Church does not recognize end-of-life directives."

While most Americans may think of secular humanists as a fringe group, the Council’s assessment of the Schiavo case is in accord with public opinion. Several recent polls (including one by CBS News and one by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup) show that a majority of Americans disapprove of lawmakers' intervention in the case. Senator Christopher Shays of Connecticut has described the situation by saying, "The Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy."

The Hypocrisy of the "Culture of Life"

A Statement by the Council for Secular Humanism

The fundamentalist political ideologues have seized upon the Terri Schiavo case to make a bold, federal play against individual liberties. Once again, they have redefined and misconstrued the issues in the media in order to pursue a religious agenda. That agenda cares not at all about the dignity or quality of an individual life nor of the fundamental liberties we, as Americans and as human beings, are supposed to enjoy. Terry Schiavo expressed her desires when she was a conscious person. The proper venue for discovering her expressed desires was the courts, and the lengthy proceedings gave due process to Ms. Schiavo. The conclusion was that she never intended for her vegetative shell, with no medical possibility of recovery, to be kept "alive" through a feeding tube. The courts ruled that her express wishes, as discovered through numerous witnesses and lengthy hearings, should be respected. Yet this ruling, which is consistent with a respect for individual liberty, and the ability of a person to choose dignity in death, angered and mobilized those who view life as little more than the beating of a heart. Their religious motivations are clear. Their "culture of life" views life as nothing more than a vehicle for "souls," and the complex system of human attributes which make us persons, such as autonomy, creativity, emotions, and other essential elements of humanity, mean nothing. This is why so-called conservatives are supporting federal intervention now in the most personal of decisions. The hypocrisy of this stance couldn’t be more clear.

President Bush recently argued that we must "err on the side of life" whenever possible. This was the argument that some governors, including Illinois Governor George Ryan, have made in suspending death sentences until a full judicial review could be made. This decision was supported by the stark fact that a number of death-penalty cases have been reversed in light of new technology and new evidence, and so, it made sense to err on the side of life by having a full judicial review. In Texas, then Governor Bush never suspended a single capital sentence for further review, even when attorneys for convicts may have slept through some of their proceedings. There, he did not err on the side of life. Has he experienced a sudden change of heart? In the Schiavo case, the courts have reviewed and reviewed, and testimony has been taken, and appeals have been made surpassing the number and thoroughness of even a death-penalty review process. The conclusion has remained the same: Terry Schiavo did not want to have her body kept alive if her mind, that which makes her a person, was dead.

Now, these politically motivated religious ideologues, who wish to push their narrow view of "life" on the populace by act of law, would have you believe that Terry Schiavo is a piece of property, and that despite her wishes, her parents should be given the chance to "take her." Terry Schiavo is not a piece of property. She was a person who expressed her wishes, and neither her husband nor her parents can usurp her role in deciding the course of her death. This is the essence of being a free person, the ability to choose for oneself, and this is the essential justice of the courts’ decisions to respect her wishes, expressed by a free, autonomous, mature person.

The Council for Secular Humanism praises the Florida and federal courts’ rulings to let Terry Schiavo’s decision to die with dignity stand, and we hope that politicians who have interjected themselves into this personal decision, for cynical political gain, will think long and hard about what this means for liberty and justice.


Paul Kurtz, Chair, Council for Secular Humanism

David Koepsell , Executive Director, Council for Secular Humanism

Tom Flynn, Editor, Free Inquiry

Forwarded Message:
Subj: Re: Council for Secular Humanism Issues Statement on Schiavo Case
Date: 3/25/2005 9:04:51 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
From: ToddStark
CC: ToddStark

I don't agree with the issues statement implication that the Schiavo case is important because it represents some sort of culture war issue that threatens secularism. I think the case was decided reasonably, the attempts to keep her alive were understandable, and the results have been just and fair so far. Except possibly for Terri Schiavo, whose wishes are not really known, and her family, who has unfortunately been rent apart.

I agree with the issue statement up to a point, in that it is of great importance that the wishes of individuals to die with dignity are respected. I disagree however that orthodox Christians and secularists are split over this issue and that either must be prevented from attempting "power grabs" to act on their values. That divisive interpretation is not supported by the evidence of opinion polls, nor is it supported by any other evidence I know of. American values are and always have been a mixed bag of intrinsically conflicting traditional and self-expression values, and both are important to our unique identity as a nation.

More specifically to the merits of the case, the wishes of Terri Schiavo were inferred by the court but the evidence was not all that strong. The best case for euthanasia is that her husband believes she would not have wanted to continue in her current state. From the documents I've read, he did not demonstrate that the couple discussed the issue sufficiently prior to her disability to be able to make that claim with such confidence. Hence the issue is not one of whether Terri Schiavo's wishes are being carried out in spite of religious extremism, but whether the judge properly interpreted her wishes based on the evidence, and made the right decision based on that interpretation. I am willing to trust tentatively that the judge knows more than I do about the evidence, so I am only mildly opposed to the Florida decision.

I think the only way in which conservative Christianity or secularism plays into this is that the former as a code of conduct leads people to assume that it is much better to choose life when we aren't sure what to do (or to choose life unconditionally in the case of extremists). The latter leads us to assume that the conditions of the family take precedence over the simple fact of life in lieu of any apparent personhood. That is the position that I assume the Council represents.

In this particular case, the conditions of the family are split. The parents are probably willing to care for Terri Schiavo in her current state, so it makes sense to many secularists as well as most Christians that the husband should attempt the option of relinquishing care of his wife to her parents rather than insist on her euthanasia. That is, even for secularist or progressive rather than traditional Christian values, given that in all honesty he probably does not know whether his wife would really want to be alive rather than dead, he should not be forcing the issue unless it is creating an enormous hardship for others. If her parents are willing to care for her, the argument that ongoing life is an enormous hardship is hard to support. The split between the husband and the parents seems to have been exacerbated by the attention brought onto the case and I see the kind of posturing represented by the Council statement as more of this same unnecessary and unwarranted attention making a sensible, rational solution less likely.

I agree strongly that the Federal court was right in not overturning the Florida decision, I mildly disagree with the Florida decision, and I strongly disagree with the resulting political posturing of extremists on various sides trying to turn this into a "culture war" issue for their own political influence at the expense of a rational solution. I think the best use of the Council's issue statements would be in support of secularist values, not opposition to traditional values, except where the two come into conflict. I believe that in this case the two are not in conflict.

kind regards,

Todd I. Stark

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