The Right and Left of the Right to Die
Published on Monday, March 28, 2005 by
The Right and Left of the Right to Die
by Naomi Jaffe

Granted - more than granted, enthusiastically agreed - the Bushies, red-staters and fundamentalists are arch-hypocrites who profess to care about one brain-dead woman while ignoring, nay, promoting, hunger, mass murder, torture, and misery around the world.

But apart from the predictable, and justified, ridicule of their inconsistency, what does our side really think of the right to life and the right to death? Who should decide, and on what basis? Are we hypocrites too, defending some lives and not others?

Doctors say Terri Schiavo is in a vegetative state, has no meaningful functions, and does not experience suffering as she dies. Since when do we believe the doctors? I thought we leftists were skeptical, even scornful, of the authority of mainstream medicine. Now all of a sudden the neurologists are our leaders?

And the husband. Since when are we devotees of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage rights? How do we know he, and only he, has the best interests of his wife at heart? The fact that the courts chose to believe his version of the story doesn't pull weight with those of us who have seen more than a few unjust court decisions, some of them involving the sanctity of marriage and in particular the rights of husbands.

It's hard to tell from a distance what would be best for Terri Schiavo, but invoking the authority of doctors, husband, and judges (don't they all seem to be men here?) is an easy dodge for the hard questions. It doesn't behoove us to use this case for grandstanding any more than it behooves the so-called right-to-lifers.

Sorting out moral ambiguity has never been progressives' strong suit, as many women who fight for abortion rights but grieve for our unborn children can testify.

The right to die is fraught with moral ambiguity. We would do well to be careful what we ask for, lest it be granted. Defending the right to die, in a country and a world in which there is no right to live, puts us in dangerous territory, territory already marked out by the Bush-era law in Texas that makes it easier to pull the plug on severely disabled people if public programs are paying for their care. Before we argue that patients in severe pain have the right to die, perhaps we should argue for the right to adequate pain medication and home care so they might not want to die. And for meaningful, free, accessible preventive public health programs that would give us all a better chance of not being in that condition to begin with.

We need to pay more attention to the the disability rights activists who are raising the worrisome implications of the standard progressive positions on the right to die. People with disabilities, whose quality of life has its ups and downs like anyone else's, too often hear, 'I'd rather be dead than live like that.' But those of us not living with serious disabilities do not and cannot know how we will feel if our situation changes, or what might make life worthwhile under various unforeseeable conditions. Our current able-bodied selves cannot speak for our future disabled selves.

I have been a caregiver for several close relatives as they neared death. Each situation was completely different and individual. One of my dear aunts, exhausted and uncomfortable from years of dialysis, told me several times that she did not want to carry on. I should not have begged her to stay for the sake of those of us who loved her and weren't ready to let her go. With another aunt, family members agonizingly disagreed, post-stroke, on whether she could communicate her wishes or not. On the other hand my mother, at 96, had lost her memory completely, could barely speak, and had to be fed soft pureed foods from a spoon. She was completely unrecognizable as the beautiful, capable, strong woman we remembered. But with loving care in her own home, she appeared to be comfortable and at peace. Her serenity gave solace to those who grieved for the loss of the person she used to be. If her earlier self had left instructions about the conditions under which she would or would not want to live, those wishes would have been superceded, in my opinion, by the unspoken communication of contentment from her later self.

Before we take on the right to die too enthusiastically, let's make sure everyone has an equal right to live. If we don't, the right to die, like everything else in this society, will reflect the gulf between those whose lives are valued and those whose lives are deemed worthless. The morality of our progressive movements must be based on the equal and priceless value of each individual life. This is the real right to life, one we can't afford to cede to the promulgators of war, the death penalty, and global immiseration.

Naomi Jaffe is Executive Director of Holding Our Own Women's Foundation in Albany, NY and a former member of the Weather Underground.