I wasn’t planning on writing any more on the Terri Schiavo case, but in chatting with Andi about it over dinner tonight I think I finally hit on what bothers me the most about this whole episode. It’s not her husband, or the video clip, or the Congress suddenly acutely aware of the ‘values vote’, or the fact that she’s being allowed to slowly starve, though these are all troubling to varying degrees and in various ways. No, what keeps gnawing at me is the very real tension that happens when ideology and real life collide in messy ways, and how people will stubbornly cling to either with no consideration of the other.
Many of us who identify in some way with the ‘Conservative Christian’ stereotype have become accustomed to questioning and even challenging the ‘scientific establishment’, if you will. Two particular issues that come to mind are evolution (about which the Washington Post printed a thoroughly useless opinion this past Sunday) and embryonic stem cell research. We know the positions we’re working from, and think we have a pretty good grasp of the other side’s positions, so when some opinion or statement or study or whatever comes out we’re halfway through the argument before we’ve even opened our mouths. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either — slavery was abolished largely as a result of the tireless, vocal efforts of abolitionist Christians.
But the ideology obviously can’t say that all science is bad. When my daughter is sick, I take her to the doctor. A doctor who has studied the medical sciences extensively, and gained knowledge gathered from years and years of scientific research. He tells me what he thinks, and I listen to him because I trust him. If I didn’t, I’d find another doctor. The whole point of the relationship is that he has extensive knowledge that I will never have, and I simply need to trust him to care for my daughter to the best of his ability. We’re supposed to trust our doctors, and specialists, and surgeons. If we have a concern we can get a second opinion, but we can’t go through life second-guessing every medical professional we encounter. This stuff is science, but it’s real-life, everyday science.
So the ideology says that life is sacred, and so she must be allowed to live. But the real-life everyday doctors and specialists say that, regardless of what it looks like, there really isn’t any life there left to save. And as I have no reason to believe that that many doctors (and throw in a judge, too) are in some way enamored with killing off patients with otherwise hopeful prognoses, I have to trust that they know what they’re talking about. And yet, sometimes doctors are wrong. They are human, after all. Thus you have the tension between ideology and reality — a life should be saved, especially when it would be so easy to do, but is the life even really there? Are you trying to keep an old clunker running, or are you pumping gas in the tank to keep the wheels rolling while the car sits upside down in the bottom of a ravine?
And what bothers me the most is that some people on either side aren’t even wrestling with this. Either it’s that “you religious freaks need to just sit down and shut up because there’s obviously nothing they can do for her,” or it’s that “all those doctors are lying or stupid and her life should be saved for it’s own sake.” I don’t think either position is healthy or wise, and both could stand a good bit of humility and introspection.
This is not clear-cut, black and white. It’s messy, and we need to acknowledge that. Home videos notwithstanding.