The Right Coast

August 18, 2005
Joan Didion on Terry Schiavo
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Joan Didion takes on the Terry Schiavo case in the New York Review of Books. Didion is quietly devastating about Michael Schiavo and his lawyers. She makes it clear that whatever Terry Schiavo's actual condition and prognosis might have been, the poor woman wasn't in the "persistent vegetative state" depicted by those eager to end her life. Didion is quietly devastating, too, about the callousness of the leftish "base", for whom the case was "about" abortion, and (even more) about booing at Christians and demonising "fundamentalists".
[E]ven if we had managed to convince ourselves that this case involved the right to die, a problem remained. No one even casually exposed to religious teaching believes any such right exists. "So teach us to number our days," the Episcopal litany asks, "so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." This is a prayer for the wisdom to accept that death is inevitable, not a plea for control over its timing. "Control" itself, when it comes to the natural processes of life and death, is seen as an illusion, an error we learn through life to relinquish. This is by no means a view confined to Christian fundamentalists. It is a view shared by anyone whose ethical principles or general idea of how life works have at any point been touched by any of the world's major religions.

That this was a situation offering space for legitimate philosophical differences seemed obvious. Yet there remained, on the "rational" side of the argument, very little acknowledgment that there could be large numbers of people, not all of whom could be categorized as "fundamentalists" or "evangelicals," who were genuinely troubled by the ramifications of viewing a life as inadequate and so deciding to end it. There remained little acknowledgment even that the case was being badly handled, rendered unnecessarily inflammatory. There was an insensitivity in the timing of the removal of the feeding tube, which took place on the Friday before Palm Sunday, meaning that the gradual process of dying coincided with a week that for Christians has specifically to do with sacrificial suffering and death. "Oh come on," someone said when this was mentioned on a cable show. There was a further insensitivity in the fact that the tube was removed at all. If the sole intention is to terminate feeding and hydration, there is no need to remove a gastric feeding tube. All anyone need do is stop plunging the formula into the tube. Hospitals routinely leave gastric tubes in place long after patients have progressed to oral feeding, because any later need to replace the tube (after the incision has begun to heal and scar tissue to form) can be difficult and require surgery. In this case, in the absence of some unusual circumstance that remained unreported, the sole purpose of actual removal would seem to have been to make any legally ordered resumption of feeding difficult to implement.
This doesn't mean Didion is sure about keeping someone like Terry Schiavo alive:
[T]his specific case, which had to do with whether a healthy woman whose brain was damaged to a catastrophic but still unestablished extent should or should not continue living, was never about abortion alone. It had at its core a virtually unthinkable but increasingly urgent question, one that few on either side of the debate wanted to address aloud.

The question began with the different ways in which we define a life worth living, but it did not stop there. The question had ultimately to do with whether or not there could be occasions when the broad economic and ethical interests of the society at large should outweigh any individual claim to either the most advanced medical attention (which Theresa Schiavo, outside the one procedure at UCSF in 1990, did not have) or indefinite care. This was the question no one on any side of the debate wanted to hear. This was the question conveniently muffled by talk about "right-to-die" and "murderers" and "mullahs," about the "freak show," the "circus."
There is much more to Didion's piece than this, or any, brief excerpt can convey. It's superb reportage: thorough, and troubling. If you took any interest in the Schiavo case at all -- and eveyone at least briefly did -- then do read the whole thing.

Give full credit to Joan Didion, by the way, for thinking and writing about this with an open mind and heart. Didion's political journey in life, like much else about her, has been edgy and not without weirdness. She started as a writer, many decades ago, for the National Review. A wonderful collection of her essays from the 1960s and early 70s, called The White Album, captures the sometimes-sinister absurdity of that era's radicals, feminists, and "counter-culture" as well as anything you will ever read. Then and always, Didion's style was (and is) nervy and febrile; she is an old-stock Californian with a disconcertingly sharp, scarcely American, eye and ear for class. But at least since the 1980s, Didion has been a person of the political left; often of the angry left. I confess that I assumed, when I first saw she was writing about the Schiavo case for the NY Review, that it would be one more bitter screed against "fundamentalists". It is anything but. I underestimated her -- though no doubt she still despises Bush and the "religious right".

As for the New York Review of Books, now very much a vehicle for the bien pensant left -- it prints multiple, repetitive, often feverish denunciations of Bush in every issue -- full credit, too, for going against the grain and carrying Joan Didion's piece.