[Paleopsych] NYT: Did Descartes Doom Terri Schiavo?
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Sun Mar 27 18:57:00 UTC 2005
Did Descartes Doom Terri Schiavo?
March 27, 2005
By JOHN LELAND
IN the parade of faces talking about Terri Schiavo last week, two
notable authorities were missing: Aristotle and Descartes. Yet their
legacy was there.
Beneath the political maneuvering and legal wrangling, the case
re-enacted a clash of ideals that has run through the history of
Western thought. And in a way, it's the essential question that has
been asked by philosophers since the dawn of human civilization. Is
every human life precious, no matter how disabled? Or do human beings
have the right to self-determination and to decide when life has
"The clash is about how we understand the human person," said Samuel
Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute for the Study of
Religion and Liberty, a conservative policy group.
The plea last week to prolong Ms. Schiavo's feeding, against the
wishes of her husband or what courts determined to be her own
expressed inclinations, echoed the teachings of Aristotle, who
considered existence itself to be inviolable.
On the other side, the argument that Ms. Schiavo's life could be
judged as not worth living echoed Descartes, the Enlightenment
philosopher who defined human life not as biological existence - which
might be an inviolable gift from God - but as consciousness, about
which people can make judgments.
For most of history, the conflict between these schools of thought has
allowed room for compromise, said Robert Veatch, a professor of
medical ethics at Georgetown University who supports the right of
patients to suspend treatment. He cited a Roman Catholic judgment from
the Middle Ages that if a patient needed to travel 300 miles by donkey
cart to a shrine to be healed, that was too much. "The idea that all
life is valuable or sacred has in almost all settings been qualified
in some way," Professor Veatch said.
Yet this idea that all life is sacred has exerted a powerful force in
America, said Mark A. Noll, a professor of history at Wheaton College,
a prestigious evangelical school in Illinois, and the author of "The
Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American
Christianity. " It fueled the abolitionist movement of the 18th and
19th centuries, which insisted on the humanity of slaves, against the
prevailing views of social science. In the early 20th century, the
same ideal stood up against eugenics, which advocated forced
sterilization to prevent the weakest members of society from
In both battles, Professor Noll said, people who held the sanctity of
all human life as a religious conviction triumphed over an
Enlightenment contention "that said 'No, we can qualify this value' "
- meaning the value of a human life could be determined by scientific
As late as 1927, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the
government could sterilize mentally retarded people against their
will. "Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes wrote in the court's decision involving a woman
mistakenly deemed retarded.
In this context, Professor Noll said, "the preference for life has
been a protection against the exploitation of little people by big
people." The conflict as it exists now began to take shape with the
emergence of modern medicine in the late-19th and early-20th
centuries, said Gary M. Laderman, an associate professor of religion
at Emory University and author of "The Sacred Remains: American
Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883."
Medical breakthroughs that prolonged human life by technological means
changed the way Americans could see death and by extension, the ways
they defined life.
The setting for death shifted from the home to the hospital, where
doctors, rather than religious leaders, claimed authority. Medicine
lionized the figure of the heroic doctor, and treated death as a kind
of failure, Professor Laderman said. Doctors were free not to tell
patients that they were terminally ill, claiming for themselves the
right to determine what was appropriate. Death became a "medicalized"
state, to be determined by human expertise. Like life, it could be
treated as a medical option.
By the 1960's and 1970's, medical patients began to claim this right
for themselves, said Bruce Jennings, a senior research scholar at the
Hastings Center, a bioethics research group that has supported patient
rights. In this, they conspicuously followed the model of the
political and consumer movements of the era, which shifted authority
away from experts and institutions to individuals.
To adopt Professor Noll's language, they redefined the little people.
"This offered a slightly different way to frame the issue: not so much
as a conflict between valuing life and the freedom of choice, but a
different attitude toward technology itself," Mr. Jennings said. "On
the one hand, there's a widespread feeling in the United States that
everything can be cured and we don't have to die. But there's another
fear of imprisonment by technology in a way that undermines our
integrity and dignity. It's claiming freedom from these institutions
The philosophical line in this history, then, is not straightforward,
but includes a peculiar American twist: The evangelical revival of the
18th and 19th centuries produced the abolition movement, which gave
rise to the women's suffrage movement, which inspired the civil rights
movement, which led to the patient's rights movement. But now the
patient's rights movement faces off with many 21st-century evangelical
Christians in the Schiavo case.
At the same time, the scientific legacy of the Enlightenment, which
argued that human life resided not in the body but the mind, is now
being undermined, as modern neuroscience demystifies elements of
thought and personality as heartless biochemical or genetic processes.
The mind is simply prisoner to the body's DNA.
The ideas at play over this history do not conclude with Ms. Schiavo's
case, but feed into arguments over abortion, stem-cell research,
assisted suicide, the death penalty and even animal rights.
In their competing claims, these ideas are part of what defines
America, said Courtney S. Campbell, a professor of medical ethics at
Oregon State University who has argued for the rights of patients to
pull the plug.
"It goes back to the foundations of the Republic - the right to life
and the right to liberty in the Declaration of Independence," he said.
"It's a deep-rooted conflict that goes to the core of who we are as a
people and as a political society, so it's not surprising that it can
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