Despite the popular image of investigative reporters as determined to dig beneath the surface of things, the pressure of today’s rapid-fire news cycle encourages journalists to grab ready-made storylines for their reporting. An example of this was coverage of the Terri Schiavo case. Many news writers and pundits applied to the story the well-worn template that depicts opposition to euthanasia as coming solely from right-wing Christians. They are indeed part of the picture, but this ignores one of the biggest groups who opposed the starvation and dehydration of Schiavo: those of us with physical disabilities and our advocates.
One of the least-reported aspects of the euthanasia controversy has been the fact that disability activist groups – such as Not Dead Yet – steadfastly oppose the legalization of “mercy killing.” Rabid right-wingers? Hardly. Disability activists are known for their leftist tendencies, and many take great pains to distance themselves from the stereotypical pro-life movement. But how often have you seen this acknowledged in the media? If the disabled are cast in any role in this drama, it is as eager and thankful beneficiaries of liberalized euthanasia laws, not as opponents who fear the loss of basic protections.
“Erring on the side of life” is not a mere abstraction for the disabled. If the right to life is no longer an automatic given but rather must be justified from case to case, we are the ones who have the most to lose. The able-bodied consistently rate the value of life with a disability as lower than the disabled themselves do. Even sympathetic outsiders often see only the hardship and find it difficult to imagine that there is anything else for us. If the right to life is considered inviolable, these false perceptions are not a threat. If instead continued life can be revoked, these perceptions will press against us at every medical crossroads.
The Schiavo case was another step toward the erosion of the right to life. Terri was severely impaired, but she was not terminally ill, nor did she need any artificial support for bodily processes. She simply could not eat without assistance, a condition also true of many a quadriplegic. Taking away her nutrition did not continue an interrupted dying process; it started a new one. If her wishes for when she might be in such a condition had been clearly known, there would have been no grounds for debate. But her wishes were not clear, the guardian who spoke for her had questionable interests and she had parents willing to care for her as she was. Yet despite this, she was killed through a process so painful that she had to be pumped full of morphine to remain peaceful. That killing was considered the appropriate response under these conditions shows that death, not life, is becoming the acceptable default.
Sadly, far too many seemed more interested in using Terri’s tragedy as an opportunity to score political points and toss vitriol than a chance to seriously contemplate these lesser-known aspects of the debate. In any case, it is now too late for Terri. Let us only hope that she was not the harbinger of our society becoming one in which the most vulnerable are forced to justify their continued existence.
Sean Benison is a graduate student in geography.