The New York Times Magazine's profile of Rick Santorum was bad, but it wasn't the most disheartening mash note to the Christian Right I read this weekend. That honor goes to Joan Didion's article on the Terri Schiavo case in The New York Review of Books.
Yeah, she's on the other side on this one. She thinks Michael Schiavo is a creep, she thinks his lawyer is a creep, and she thinks the national rancor the case generated was essentially our side's fault. She thinks the majority of doctors who examined and diagnosed Terri Schiavo might be part of a vast death-loving conspiracy, and she strongly suggests that Dr. William Cheshire, who says Schiavo may have been in a "minimally conscious state" rather than a vegetative state, was a hero speaking truth to power.
"Some doctors and bioethicists with interests in the matter suggested that, as a conservative Christian, Dr. Cheshire brought a bias to the case," Didion writes. What Didion fails to say is that Dr. Cheshire did bring a bias to the case:
Cheshire has been associated with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, an organization formed in the 1990s by leading Christian bioethicists. A poem attributed to him about assisted suicide is posted on the Web site Ethics & Medicine (www.ethicsandmedicine.com):
"The notion of a right to die/ In reason finds approval nil,/ From such a harsh judicial lie/ Would obligate doctors to kill."
(The poem is here. It's not subtle.)
But this is a bias Didion seems to share. I really wasn't expecting this:
...even 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.
What is she talking about? In hospitals every day we use, or agree not to use, "extraordinary measures"; we limit ourselves in some cases to palliative care; we write "DNR" for "do not resuscitate" on medical charts. That's "control," and quite often we have it, regardless of what the Episcopal litany says. And in this country, inevitably, most of the people who exercise this control, or ask that it be exercised, are believers.
Didion goes on:
...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.
In fact, as we know, even a majority of evangelicals supported the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, as well as overwhelming numbers of non-evangelicals.
Didion chides those on the right-to-die side in this case for excessive certainty and inability to imagine a different point of view, but says virtually nothing about the certainty and insensitivity of the pro-feeding-tube side, as seen, most shockingly, in assertions by members of Terri Schiavo's family that appeared in the report of Jeb Bush's guardian ad litem for the case, Jay Wolfson:
Throughout the course of the litigation, deposition and trial testimony by members of the Schindler family voiced the disturbing belief that they would keep Theresa alive at any and all costs. Nearly gruesome examples were given, eliciting agreement by family members that in the event Theresa should contract diabetes and subsequent gangrene in each of her limbs, they would agree to amputate each limb, and would then, were she to be diagnosed with heart disease, perform open heart surgery.... Within the testimony, as part of the hypotheticals presented, Schindler family members stated that even if Theresa had told them of her intention to have artificial nutrition withdrawn, they would not do it.
The Schindlers, in fact, are virtually absent from Didion's article -- Didion says nothing about their extreme views, or about their retinue, which included Operation Rescue's Randall Terry and Gary McCullough, a onetime spokesman for murderers of abortion doctors.
Leaving the Schindlers mostly offstage (and their advisers entirely offstage) allows Didion to chide Michael Schiavo's brother Brian as a "hothead" because he appeared on Larry King Live on the night of Terri Schiavo's death and told the Schindlers and their hangers-on and supporters to "pound sand." Readers of Didion's piece could have no idea what Brian was reacting to: namely, murder charges. Schiavo's brother and sister had invited Father Frank Pavone, the self-promoting head of Priests for Life, to sit and watch Terri Schiavo die. By his own account, Pavone "was at Terri Schiavo's bedside during the last 14 hours of her earthly life, right up until five minutes before her death." However, he did manage to interrupt his vigil in order to make certain opinions known to the media:
The night before Schiavo died, Pavone said: "If I speak to Michael, if I speak to [Florida state Judge George] Greer, if I speak to any of these people, I will not hesitate to call them exactly what they are: murderers."
On Larry King Live hours after Terri Schiavo died, Pavone preceded Brian Schiavo and said,
Well, Larry, I've reached out to Michael very publicly over the last month. I've preached on many televised masses directly appealing to Michael to sit down and dialogue about this, to work towards reconciliation, to take into account the serious concerns people have about what Terri's killing says about the path America is taking.
I've heard nothing from him. You know, it's one thing to avoid bitterness. It's another thing to avoid truth. And reaching out in kindness and compassion and in respect, which is the attitude I have and I try to foster, is very, very different from distorting the truth. We have to accurately describe what happened here. And what happened here is that Terri was killed. And a lot of people don't accept the explanation of why.
Brian Schiavo was upset at that? Brian Schiavo was "hotheaded"? Well, for crissakes, I certainly hope so.
Pavone's name doesn't appear once in Didion's article.
I could go on. I could point out that Didion thinks this became a donnybrook only because of the insensitivity of religion-hating decision-makers and liberals:
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.
...It was the convergence of that countdown with the holiest week in the Christian calendar that exacerbated the "circus," the displays of theatrical martyrdom outside the hospice. It was the ability to dismiss the scene outside the hospice as a "circus" that made the case so ready a vehicle for the expression of "disgust." Old polarizations took over. Differences became intolerances.
Didion goes on to refer to "the first news cycle," as if the first news cycle in this story was in the days before Terri Schiavo's death. In fact, Terri Schiavo was a cause celebre on the right as far back as 2003. It's not clear that Didion even knows that. She doesn't seem to know that a mini-version of the recent drama took place a year and a half ago, complete with emergency legislation rammed through the Florida legislature and cries of "legalized murder" from the national right-wing media. This was a major battle in the culture wars long ago, and the religious right fired the first shots. What offends Didion is merely the rest of America fighting back.