Thursday, March 24, 2005

Defining Humans Down

One of the nasty little realities resulting from the Terri Schaivo case is that we are becoming more and more comfortable with bad definitions of what it means to be human. As I hear commentators and talking heads deal with what is at stake here, Terri is talked about in some pretty unflattering terms.

I have heard the argument made often that she is costing taxpayers a lot of money and should therefore be let go. Money is always a bad way to value human life.

The Daily Show mocked senators who referred to her by her first name on the Senate floor. Are they supposed to de-humanize her in order to make a political point? Isn’t that what many are doing to support her death?

As far as I have been able to tell, one of the fulcrum points for the court rulings has been the “husband’s” claim that Terri did not want to live this way. He first claimed this almost seven years into her current state and has since refused to relinquish legal guardianship to her parents and move on. There is absolutely no way of knowing what Terri really wanted or wants. So now we are down to what one person values in another person’s life. This is not all that different from the “every child a wanted child” abortion and contraception campaign of the 1990s. Apparently unwanted Homo sapiens are not quite human persons.

In my opinion, because we are loosing our understanding of human beings as special creatures among the rest of creation, we are loosing the ethical and moral intuitions that keep us humane.


Public Theologian said...


I think rather the opposite. I see us becoming clearer about the issue of personhood, which is not the same as defining what is human. Personhood is that which pertains to mind, will, emotion, reason, understanding--all things which distinguish us in degree if not in kind from other creatures. It is in light of those characteristics that the church has always understood the Imago Dei, not the capacity to respirate or to maintain heart rate.

I have a child with Down syndrome so I am as attuned to the slippery slope as anyone on this issue, because people in her condition would be the first to go if in fact we were devaluing human life as you claim. But I don't see or hear society threatening my daughter or devaluing her existence one bit, despite the fact that she is of extremely limited mental capacity.

I also have to disagree with your assertion that Terri Schiavo's fate was decided by one person's claim. There were actually five people who testified to that effect and the judge's ruling was that "clear and convincing proof" had been offered that this in fact was her desire, which is the highest standard of proof that one can have in the law. Since that was the case, the court would have been remiss to force feed her, given that the law recognizes the rights of patients to refuse treatment, even nutrition, if that is the decision to which the patient herself has arrived.

Phil Steiger said...

Then we may have to agree to disagree. I don't see any kind of good public definiton of what comprises a human person. I, in fact, see a culture which sways with the wind about who actually qualifies as a member of the human race.

I also see the Imago Dei as supporting my case about personhood. People in Terri's condition, your daughter, fetuses in the womb-they all bear the Imago Dei and deserve to be treated as full-fledged members of the human race.

As far as the single person claim dispute, the legal fulcrum is that the legal guardian, the husband, holds to the view that she wanted to die. There were multiple affadavits on either side, but it was the legal guardianship that was the point of the matter.

Public Theologian said...


What is it about the Imago Dei that these share? Genetics? Heart beat? I think that declaring personhood requires a greater specificity than simply an assertion. What criteria are you using?