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Judges have it right

Alan Braunholtz

Two recent films – “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Sea Inside” – give brief insights into the complexities around the “right to life” and “choose to die with dignity” viewpoints overwhelming us at the moment. In issues as personal as this, we’re all going to be on our own. No film, preacher, moralist, ethicist or doctor can tell you absolutely what is right or wrong.I’d recommend “The Sea Inside” as the better film. “Million Dollar Baby” gets too much wrong. If you can talk, you don’t need a respirator. And if you can communicate, all you have to do is tell the doctor to turn off the machine if you’ve made that decision.Everyone has the right to decline medical care. No one forces Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept life-saving blood transfusions. It’s our personal choice. The problems start when we can’t speak for ourselves or can but there are no machines to turn off. Those terminally ill from cancer, for example.When you can’t speak, relatives must make the decision. The law is clear on the order for that. It’s strangely logical for a law. Those who are closest rate higher. Remember the sanctity of marriage and special bond we heard about in the last election? Well, the courts recognize that the husband or wife is most likely to know the intimate wishes of their partner in life. Then it’s adult children, followed by parents.Intuitively, this makes sense. I talk to my wife about weird stuff, silly things and disturbing thoughts all the time. Much more than my parents. The remaining vestiges of a persistent teenage sullenness sadly still prevent me from telling my parents all I want to. Parents are more likely to discuss their aging with their children than vice versa.Michael Schiavo’s been the target of concerted ugly attacks by people who are all too willing to bully from their positions of wealth and power. When he turned down a clumsy million dollar bribe, he put the money attacks to rest. By continuing with his life after his wife fell into a persistent vegetative state, he did what we all hope our loved ones will do if we disappear from their lives. We want them to live life as much as possible. Still, it’d be easier for him to run away. But for some reason, he’s standing firm in his beliefs of what his wife wants. Perhaps he loves her enough to let her go.The flurry of activity in this case reflects more on the chance for political forces to highjack a personal tragedy to further their own agenda than compassion for the people involved. This case has been to the district court, the Florida Appeals Court, the Florida Supreme Court, the federal courts numerous times and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. Each allows objective and independent reviews of Terry Schiavo’s condition and her husband’s motivations. All have decided that Michael Schiavo has the sad responsibility to decide if his wife would want to live on in this way.Compared to these long and prudent reviews, it’s disgusting watching some politicians abandon their intellects for cheap political advantages, not to mention all the time and money wasted by such grandstanding. When the Senate leader, Bill Frist, contradicts 15 years of neurologists’ findings based on a home video and expects us to believe him because he’s a doctor (a heart surgeon), it’s too sad to be funny. The unprecedented activities by the House and Senate to get this case out of the state and into the federal courts are worrying. This is about a religious belief and the view that all human life is good and must be sustained at any cost. How far will they go to enforce their views on others? Even Florida’s bishops aren’t saying the Catholic Church supports disproportionate means to sustain life. Death is unfortunately a part of life and not always an evil incarnate to be shunned at all costs. Denying death is an argument we’re going to lose.Strangely, the moral absolutists turn into inconsistent utilitarians on issues of health care, war, death penalties and aid to poverty-stricken nations. There’re a lot of fully functional children starving to death out there. And of the developed nations, we give the lowest percentage of our wealth as foreign aid. That’s a moral issue, too.If you doubt that this isn’t about religious politics, but about compassion, then look at how the Justice Department has attacked Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, approved in ballots in 1994 and 1997 and found constitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This law trusts people to make a personal decision on their quality of life when in the last stages of a terminal illness. To steal a favorite quote, this state law seems “far more compassionate than a philosophy that seeks solutions from distant bureaucracies.”Since November 2001 a distant bureaucracy, the Justice Department, attacked this law by any means possible, including highjacking statutes relating to drug dealing to threaten doctors and grab new federal powers. I guess all that talk about state’s rights only applies if they happen to agree with the powers in Washington.The federal courts recognized state’s rights by refusing to hear the Schiavo case. If nothing else, this tragedy has educated us all on the importance of living wills for the peace of mind of those left behind and the independence of the judiciary at the state and federal levels.Do you really want one of your most painful personal decisions decided by political posturing in Washington? Hopefully, the judiciary will remain stubbornly independent despite attempts to change this by nominating as many like-minded activist judges as possible.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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