Remember in 2005 when then-President Bush rushed back to Washington to get the Republican-dominated Congress to intervene directly in the Terry Schiavo right-to-die case? Terry Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, alive only because she was receiving nutrition through a feeding tube. Her husband and legal guardian–who knew she would never want to live like that–fought Terry’s staunchly Catholic family in the court system for years over her right to die in such a circumstance. A Florida state appeals court agreed with Terry’s husband and allowed the feeding tube to be removed in spring of 2005.
Out of all legal options, the family went to the top of the political ladder, and got President Bush and his religious-right powerhouse in Congress to counteract that ruling. Congress passed, and Bush signed, emergency legislation, sending the case back to the federal court. But wisely, the federal court did not overrule the previous decision. The feeding tube was not reinserted, and Terry was allowed to die.
The case was a sickening display of not only the breach of the separation of powers as well as the separation of church and state, but also of how quickly and deeply one’s personal life can be penetrated by a government. A federal appeals court judge in Atlanta quite eloquently admonished Congress and the White House for acting “in a manner demonstrably at odds with our Founding Fathers’ blueprint for the governance of a free people — our Constitution.”
Fast forward to 2009, and there is an eerily similar kind of family nightmare in Italy. A 37-year old woman, Eluana Englaro, has been in a coma since a car crash in 1992. Her father, who claims that her daughter would not want to live in such a vegetative state, has spent years petitioning the Italian court system to allow her to die. Finally, doctors were allowed to implement a medical protocol for withdrawing Eluana’s artificial nutrition–that is, until Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, after consulting with the Vatican, issued an emergency decree stating nutrition cannot be withdrawn.
Magnifying the absurdity of the Italian government’s and Vatican’s interference in the private lives of these citizens is the Prime Minister’s justification for his decree: physically at least, Eluana was “in the condition to have babies.”
Allow me to elucidate. Irregardless of the comatose woman’s inability to consent to anything, the Italian Prime Minister and the Vatican are in effect saying that it would be acceptable for someone to impregnate this woman, have her body incubate a fetus, then deliver it; but to allow her to die a natural and dignified death by withdrawing artificial nutrition would be immoral, despite what Eluana would have wanted.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who pleaded with Berlusconi to not permit Eluana to die, told him “We have to stop this crime against humanity.” (I must say, I find it ludicrous and ironic that the religious institution responsible for the horrific crimes of the medieval Crusades and the systematic enabling of pedophilia in the priesthood has the audacity to say anything about crimes against humanity.)
In these two right-to-die cases, Terry and Eluana were young when they suffered their irreversible brain damage and had not made their wishes explicitly known in writing. But those closest to them and legally responsible for making decisions on their behalf have a better idea than the government or the Church about whether or not they would want to linger for decades in an unconscious state.
Even more fundamentally important than the ethics of proxy medical decision-making is the right to die. I think this right is a corollary of Ayn Rand’s concept of the right to life: “There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.”
In their quest to take away the right-to-die, the Vatican and America’s Religious Right are basically taking away the right to life, claiming your life belongs to God, not to you. This religious view is the reason the Schiavo family fought Terry’s right to die; this was the reason they took their case to a President who actively promulgated religious initiatives; and this is what the Italian father is fighting.
Your right to life includes your right to end your life according to your values. If you would not want to be kept alive for decades in a comatose state–and your proxy decision makers know that–then they have the ethical and legal obligation to carry out your wishes. And any governmental or church interference with that right is an immoral and egregious offense to the citizens of a society obligated to uphold their Constitutional rights.
Update: Eluana died Monday Feb 9 as legislators debated her case. The Italian government intends to push for an anti-right-to-die law.