The Politics of "Demeaning"
How strangely appropriate that the political denouement of Terri Schiavo’s sad odyssey began drawing to a close this past weekend on Good Friday.
As our nation went through the weekend simultaneously debating the value of the life of a disabled woman, observing solemn remembrances of the Passion and preparing for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, the profound ramifications of the growing schism between the secular and the religious became clear.
This confrontation over one woman’s life is so profound because it forces us to grapple, collectively, with the question of suffering and what makes life worth living.
I turned on the Fox coverage of Terri’s legal battle Good Friday morning and saw Congressmen Chris Smith (R, NJ) and Jim Moran (D,VA) debating the issues.
(I once spent a full day with Congressman Smith doing “participant observation” in his home district during my doctoral coursework — I came away with a deep respect for his integrity. Conversely, during the time I lived in Congressman Moran’s district, I developed an opposite opinion of his integrity (see here for exhaustive details) and exercised many opportunities to vote against him.)
Moran’s closing filibuster rings in my memory as a refrain that sums up the corrupted attitudes of those opposing Terri’s right to live — her right to simple food and water. When asked by the moderator what he might say to Terri’s parents, Moran rambled, then finally concluded by observing that he believes Terri’s life is “demeaning.”
Here’s the emotional core of the national debate over Terri’s life. Moran sees pictures of Terri — disabled, dependent on those who love her for care — and wants to avert his eyes. He sees no worth, only degradation.
I read today a piece from a young man who has standing to respond. Joe Ford is a junior at Harvard — he has severe cerebral palsy and a doctor tried to euthanize him at his birth. Be SURE to read this article he wrote for the Harvard Crimson entitled “Bigotry and the Murder of Terri Schiavo.” Joe writes that he purposefully wears his Harvard t-shirt when he travels in an effort to stem the patronizing attitudes he encounters when he meets strangers.
Here is Joe’s argument about bigotry toward the disabled:
Like many others with disabilities, I believe that the American public, to one degree or another, holds that disabled people are better off dead. To put it in a simpler way, many Americans are bigots. A close examination of the facts of the Schiavo case reveals not a case of difficult decisions but a basic test of this country’s decency. Our country has learned that we cannot judge people on the basis of minority status, but for some reason we have not erased our prejudice against disability.
Let me take Joe’s argument to its logical conclusion: Terri’s case demands an eternal perspective. When the sun rose Sunday morning, Christians around the world proclaimed: He is risen, He is risen, indeed! In that triumphant cry, we spoke to the vast empty space in our souls where a redemptive understanding of suffering can be.
The stakes are high in the politics of death. Are those who suffer “better off dead?” In that emptiness, in that sorrow, place an empty tomb. That’s the only way to give “re-meaning” to Terri Schiavo’s life.