Life, death, science, and family values

Italy is being wracked by a Terri Schiavo-esque political feeding-tube fight.  In 1992, Eluana Englaro, then 21-years-old, was in a serious car accident and struck comatose.  Two years later, her doctors declared her condition irreversible.  Since then, she has been on feeding tubes in a vegetative state.  Last November, Englaro’s father won a court order allowing her feeding tubes to be disconnected, but Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has fought to keep her on life-support.  Catholic newspapers accuse the father of wanting to kill his daughter; the Catholic Church has forcefully insisted that the government must keep Englaro alive. 

Berlusconi’s cabinet issued an emergency order on Friday outlawing the cessation of artificial feeding and hydration.  President Giorgio Napolitano has refused to sign the decree, however, claiming that the prime minister is violating the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches by ignoring numerous court rulings supporting Mr. Englaro.  The family’s lawyer told the Corriere della Sera that the family was going forward under the judicial decree; the paper reports that Englaro’s feeding tubes were disconnected on Friday. 

These wrenching moral dilemmas obviously have no simple or permanent answer.  A bright-line rule that humans must be kept alive for however long as medical technology permits is certainly easier to administer than a more nuanced position that takes into account mental capacity, quality of life, and the desires of family members.  A bright-line life support rule also avoids any possible slippery slope towards an intolerance for the feeble and handicapped.   But to call the always-use-medical-technology position “pro-life” gives too little weight to a family’s agonized interests, I think.  After 17 years watching his daughter in a coma, Eluana Englaro’s father did not come at his decision lightly, it would appear.  Like Terri Schiavo’s husband, the father has been forced into the fiction that Eluana communicated her wish to not be kept indefinitely on life support.  The more honest position is probably something along the lines of: ‘we know our daughter, this is not her, it never again will be her, she has suffered long enough and so have we.  Death is a natural part of life; it is time for her to die.’  Yet with medical technology becoming ever more sophisticated, we may become slaves to our capacity to keep people, especially the very elderly, technically alive through machines that compensate for their failing organs or damaged brains. 

Meanwhile, the backlash against Nadya Suleman, the mother of six artificially-conceived children who gave birth to another eight two weeks ago continues.   The nine-week premature octoplet’s delivery required 46 doctors, nurses, and assistants; in twelve days, their care has likely cost at least $300,000 and counting.   Here’s a possible rule of thumb: If you are a radical pro-lifer and believe that every artificially-conceived embryo must be brought to term, no fertility treatments for you unless you are prepared to bankroll all the resulting medical costs yourself.  Either accept your God-given condition of infertility or accept a human condition on the man-made science for overcoming that infertility: use within reason.

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