Terri Schiavo and the morality of politics

There are many worrying aspects of the Terri Schiavo case – not least the hostility to the separation of powers expressed by people who really should know better. Perhaps the most worrying aspect, however, is the way in which the individual wishes of Mrs Schiavo have become a secondary issue, or almost an irrelevance.

The courts that have looked at this case – extensively – determined as a matter of fact that Mrs Schiavo would not have wished to be kept alive artificially. No factual challenge was ever made to this evidence, for all the fulminations against activist judges and cultures of life. But even though the courts appeared to be ensuring the fulfilment of Mrs Schiavo’s wishes, as the law requires, for some people that just doesn’t seem to matter.

For the protesters outside the hospice, Terri wanted to live, no matter what the evidence. Her parents, even, implied that they would not have respected her wishes even had there been clear, incontrovertible evidence that she wanted to be allowed to die.

How can people know what she wanted? They can’t, for sure, but a determination can be reached through a fair, impartial process, such as the law provides. Beyond that, once a finding of fact has been made, that has to stand unless there is compelling new evidence – evidence which is beyond personal attacks on judges, Mr Schiavo, or anyone else.

Personal belief and morality are essential parts of human life, but this case has seen personal morality imposed on others – which becomes cruelty, and leads to tyranny. Too many of the ‘pro-life’ protesters in this case claimed Mrs Schiavo wanted to live because, well, that’s what she should have wanted – but no matter how strongly that view is held, it just won’t do, against the evidence and the finding that she wanted to die.

The spread of public personal morality – especially when used as a substitute for thought – is dangerous. Democracy has to allow the contention of ideas and views aside, as much as possible, from difficult moral issues. Morality in politics lies in diversity and equal law, not in uniformity and higher authority.

The religious right wouldn’t like the analogy, but this whole moral panic reminds me of the old story of the socialist who tells a friend “Comrade, come the revolution, everyone will have caviare.” “But I don’t like caviare,” replies his friend. “Comrade,” replies the socialist, “come the revolution, everyone will have caviare, and everyone will like caviare.”