[Paleopsych] Salon: This has nothing to do with the sanctity of life

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Sun Mar 27 23:28:35 UTC 2005

This has nothing to do with the sanctity of life

From another list:

My friend and former racquetball partner, the Jesuit priest and 
bioethicist John Paris, is in Salon today explicating some of the Catholic 
argument - he filed on behalf of the husband Michael Schiavo, along with 
54 other bioethicists.

The Rev. John Paris, professor of bioethics, says Terri Schiavo has the 
moral and legal right to die, and only the Christian right is keeping her 
By Andrew Leonard

March 22, 2005 | The decision on whether to allow Terri Schiavo to die has 
sparked endless controversy over what is legal and ethical when patients 
are unable to make their own wishes. One observer who brings both legal 
and moral authority to the debate is the Rev. John Paris, the Walsh 
Professor of Bioethics at Boston College.

Paris has served as an expert witness on numerous cases involving patients 
who were being kept alive by artificial means. He is equally capable of 
discussing the legal details of the Schiavo case and the Catholic Church's 
view of it. According to Paris, every relevant legal issue has already 
been decided; the only thing keeping the case alive is the fact that the 
Christian right has made Schiavo a cause célèbre.

Paris did not serve as an expert witness in the Schiavo case. However, 
when the case was reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, he signed an 
amicus brief on behalf of Michael Schiavo, who wants to take his wife off 
life support. Salon spoke to Paris by phone on Monday morning. "This 
case," he says, "is bizarre."

Why is the case bizarre?

In most cases, the court has a theory, you have an appellate review, and 
that's the end. But this case, the parents keep coming back with new 
issues -- every time that they lose, they come in with a new issue. We 
want to reexamine the case. We believe she's competent. We need new 
medical tests being done. We think she's been abused. We want child 
protective services to intervene. Finally, Judge George Greer denied them 
all. He said. "Look, we have had court-appointed neutral physicians 
examine this patient. You don't believe the findings of the doctors but 
the finding of the doctors have been accepted by the court as factual." 
There have been six reviews by the appellate court.

What did the appellate court find?

The Florida Court of Appeals found four very interesting things. And it 
found them by the highest legal standard you can have -- clear and 
convincing evidence. The appellate court said that Judge Greer found clear 
and convincing evidence that Schiavo is in a well-diagnosed, persistent 
vegetative state, that there is no hope of her ever recovering 
consciousness, and that she had stated she would not ever want to be 
maintained this way. The court said we have heard the parents saying she 
didn't [say that], and we heard the husband say she did, and we believe 
the husband's statement is a correct statement of her position. The court 
also found that the husband was a caring, loving spouse whose actions were 
in Terri's best interests. The court said, "Remove the feeding tube," and 
the family protested. Of course, the family has the radical, antiabortion, 
right-to-life Christian right, with its apparently unlimited resources and 
political muscle, behind them.

So what do you think this case is really about?

The power of the Christian right. This case has nothing to do with the 
legal issues involving a feeding tube. The feeding tube issue was 
definitively resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 in Cruzan vs. 
Director. The United States Supreme Court ruled that competent patients 
have the right to decline any and all unwanted treatment, and unconscious 
patients have the same right, depending upon the evidentiary standard 
established by the state. And Florida law says that Terri Schiavo has more 
than met the standard in this state. So there is no legal issue.

Are there any extenuating circumstances?

The law is clear, the medicine is clear, the ethics are clear. A 
presidential commission in 1983, appointed by Ronald Reagan, issued a very 
famous document called "Deciding to Forgo Life-Sustaining Treatment." It 
talked about the appropriate treatment for patients who are permanently 
unconscious. The commission said the only justification for continuing any 
treatment -- and they specifically talked about feeding tubes -- is either 
the slight hope that the patient might recover or the family's hope that 
the patient might recover. Terri Schiavo's legitimate family -- the 
guardian, the spouse -- has persuaded the court that she wouldn't want 
[intervention] and therefore it shouldn't happen. Now you have the brother 
and sister, the mother and father, saying that's all wrong. But they had 
their day in court, they had their weeks in court, they had their years in 

Isn't the underlying social issue here one that says the law doesn't have 
authority over this kind of life-or-death matter?

Let me give you a test that I've done 100 times to audiences. And I 
guarantee you can do the same thing. Go and find the first 12 people you 
meet and say to them, "If you were to suffer a cerebral aneurysm, and we 
were able to diagnose that with a PET-scan immediately, would you want to 
be put on a feeding tube, knowing that you can be sustained in this 
existence?" I have asked that question in medical audiences, legal 
audiences and audiences of judges. I'll bet I have put that question 
before several thousand people. How many people do you think have said 
they wanted to be maintained that way? Zero. Not one person. Now that 
tells you about where the moral sentiment of our community is.

Where do you think this case is headed?

It's headed to federal court today. I cannot imagine what the federal 
question is. Congress said, "All we are doing is asking to have a federal 
court examine this." I don't know what they thought the courts were doing 
in the last eight years. They are saying, "We're asking a court to review 
this, to be certain that due process has not been violated." I don't think 
there is a case in the history of the United States that has been reviewed 
six times by an appellate court. Remember, the United States Supreme Court 
refused to review this.

As a priest, how do you resolve questions in which the "sanctity of life" 
is involved?

The sanctity of life? This has nothing to do with the sanctity of life. 
The Roman Catholic Church has a consistent 400-year-old tradition that I'm 
sure you are familiar with. It says nobody is obliged to undergo 
extraordinary means to preserve life.

This is Holy Week, this is when the Catholic community is saying, "We 
understand that life is not an absolute good and death is not an absolute 
defeat." The whole story of Easter is about the triumph of eternal life 
over death. Catholics have never believed that biological life is an end 
in and of itself. We've been created as a gift from God and are ultimately 
destined to go back to God. And we've been destined in this life to be 
involved in relationships. And when the capacity for that life is 
exhausted, there is no obligation to make officious efforts to sustain it.

This is not new doctrine. Back in 1950, Gerald Kelly, the leading Catholic 
moral theologian at the time, wrote a marvelous article on the obligation 
to use artificial means to sustain life. He published it in Theological 
Studies, the leading Catholic journal. He wrote, "I'm often asked whether 
you have to use IV feeding to sustain somebody who is in a terminal coma." 
And he said, "Not only do I believe there is no obligation to do it, I 
believe that imposing those treatments on that class of patients is wrong. 
There is no benefit to the patient, there is great expense to the 
community, and there is enormous tension on the family."

How do you square that with the pope's comments last year, which seemed to 
indicate that people in Schiavo's situation should be kept alive?

The bishops of Florida did it very nicely when they said, "There is a 
presumption to use nutritional fluid, unless the continued use of it would 
be burdensome to the patient." So it's not an absolute. That statement is 
a recognition that the Vatican is inhabited by the same cross section of 
people that inhabit the United States

What do you mean?

I mean there are some radical right-to-lifers there, and they got that 
statement out. But it has to be seen in the context of the pope's 1980 
declaration on euthanasia, and the pope's encyclical on death and dying, 
in which he repeats the long-standing tradition that I just gave you. His 
comment last year wasn't doctrinal statement, it wasn't encyclical, it 
wasn't a papal pronouncement. It was a speech at a meeting of 

Again, this issue is not new. Every court, every jurisdiction that has 
heard it, agrees. So you'd think this issue would have ended. I thought it 
ended when we took it to the Supreme Court in 1990. But I hadn't 
anticipated the power of the Christian right. They elected him [George 
Bush]. And now he dances.

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About the writer
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon.

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