Monday, April 05, 2010

"Living in a community": the lessons of the Terru Schiavo tragedy and caring for the helpless

On March 30, the Washington Times Commentary carried an op-ed by Cathy Ruse of the Family Research Council and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Remembering the Death of Terri Schiavo: Care of the helpless is not a choice but a moral obligation,” link here.

After reviewing the tragic circumstances of the case for the family, she refers to the purported “right to die” (with dignity), in the parlance of many people”, and turns it into an astonishing metaphor, needing to be quoted: “ a radical individualism that renders every other person a threat to your freedom and therefore your enemy”. I think the metaphor would be more relevant if she qualified “every person” as something like “every person with an unbounded need to be cared for.” She then refers to Terri’s “puerile” (that is, childish or “chicken”) husband as “self-absorbed” and self-serving in talking about rights.

A couple things here. The writer is talking about a legal spouse who had taken a voluntary vow of marriage, and obviously was morally obliged to live up to it and do everything possible to save his wife. There is some background (check Wikipedia). Her husband had previously won a malpractice lawsuit against her obstetrician for failing to diagnose and treat bulimia, which can (like anorexia and eating disorders) can lead to coma and death (as in the troubling HBO film “Thin”). It’s possible to talk about this in “behavior-based disease” terms (which conservative columnists like George Will like to toss around regarding many things – diet, smoking, HIV, obesity, etc) and place some moral responsibility on the victim (that would put a lot of us in harms way, wouldn’t it). The larger subject is disability or incapacity, whether or children or adults, whether or not self-induced, and of the obligations, not created by voluntary choice, to deal with it.

The writer could have gone into the idea that we’ve gotten used to the modern idea (even promoted by Dr. Phil all the time) that responsibility for others begins with conception – or the (unprotected) act that can produce conception. Until you make the choice to engage in that specific behavior, you can do whatever you want (like that character Grant in “Bugcrush” uttering that famous line). Once you’ve brought new life into the world, responsibility for others exists. You can rehearse for it by going onto reality TV’s “The Baby Borrowers.”

Sorry, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Ever seen the film “One True Thing” (oh, yes, the father was so manipulative, wasn’t he). We can be expected to support others in our family of origin – most notably our aging parents, but sometimes even siblings or their kids after tragedies. That’s actually the law in many states (that have “filial responsibility laws”, implemented at different levels). Even if you don’t generate a family of your own, you have one of origin assigned to you – and its needs can have a big effect on your life. It’s not necessarily one’s “fundamental right” to refuse affection just out of one’s own expressive needs, and it’s not necessarily one’s right to impact the rest of the world without responsibility for others. The law or social decency typically requires other in a family to deal with incapacity, and, although the requirements vary a lot and can be nebulous, the law typically provides some instruments, like powers of attorney, to deal with these problems.

Both Allan Carlson (see my Book Review blog Sept. 18) and Phillip Longman, among others, have discussed “radical individualism” and its “logical consequences” with respect to issues like the “family wage” and “demographic winter”.

I’ve always suspected that what makes many of the leading issues over “gay rights” (that is, ending “don’t ask don’t tell”, same-sex marriage and even adoption by gays) so testing is not the legalistic, paper arguments over equal protection, but the way unpredictable obligations, sometimes requiring sacrifice or life redirection, can fall upon any of us in a community.  And this moral obligation comes at us from both the Left and the Right.  It seems to make introversion (or the so-called "schizoid personality") either a sin or a "disorder".

It can be challenging -- and life-changing, perhaps even shortening -- to have to take partial ownership of someone else's "moral karma".  Doing so can be humbling, perhaps even humiliating. One wants others to know what they did (or neglected) before they are forgiven.  Yet, on the Cross, Christ forgave without expecting others to even understand the implications of what they had done.  Grace itself is challenging.

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