North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

The inadequacy of automomy

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The Weekly Standard has an excellent opinion piece on the Schaivo case and what we can learn from it. The author is Eric Cohen, who is the resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

FOR ALL THE ATTENTION we have paid to the Schiavo case, we have asked many of the wrong questions, living as we do on the playing field of modern liberalism. We have asked whether she is really in a persistent vegetative state, instead of reflecting on what we owe people in a persistent vegetative state. We have asked what she would have wanted as a competent person imagining herself in such a condition, instead of asking what we owe the person who is now with us, a person who can no longer speak for herself, a person entrusted to the care of her family and the protection of her society.

For some, it is an article of faith that individuals should decide for themselves how to be cared for in such cases. And no doubt one response to the Schiavo case will be a renewed call for living wills and advance directives–as if the tragedy here were that Michael Schiavo did not have written proof of Terri’s desires. But the real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.

A true adherence to procedural liberalism–respecting a person’s clear wishes when they can be discovered, erring on the side of life when they cannot–would have led to a much better outcome in this case. It would have led the court to preserve Terri Schiavo’s life and deny Michael Schiavo’s request to let her die. But as we have learned, the descent from procedural liberalism’s respect for a person’s wishes to ideological liberalism’s lack of respect for incapacitated persons is relatively swift. Treating autonomy as an absolute makes a person’s dignity turn entirely on his or her capacity to act autonomously. It leads to the view that only those with the ability to express their will possess any dignity at all–everyone else is “life unworthy of life.”

This is what ideological liberalism now seems to believe–whether in regard to early human embryos, or late-stage dementia patients, or fetuses with Down syndrome. And in the end, the Schiavo case is just one more act in modern liberalism’s betrayal of the vulnerable people it once claimed to speak for. Instead of sympathizing with Terri Schiavo–a disabled woman, abandoned by her husband, seen by many as a burden on society–modern liberalism now sympathizes with Michael Schiavo, a healthy man seeking freedom from the burden of his disabled wife and self-fulfillment in the arms of another. And while one would think that divorce was the obvious solution, this was more than Michael Schiavo apparently could bear, since it would require a definitive act of betrayal instead of a supposed demonstration of loyalty to Terri’s wishes.

the autonomy regime, at its best, prevents the worst abuses–like involuntary euthanasia, where doctors or public officials decide whose life is worth living. But the autonomy regime, even at its best, is deeply inadequate. It is based on a failure to recognize that the human condition involves both giving and needing care, and not always being morally free to decide our own fate.

This story is a moving one and one that is a sharp reminder of how we need to come to grips with all of the technology we now have at our disposal. I don’t buy the argument that the Schaivo story is being exploited for political purposes. What I see is that there are those who would much prefer that the story be buried because the light shining in this previously dark corner does not suit their politics.

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Written by Curt

March 27, 2005 at 8:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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