April 6, 2005

God Doesn't Do Feeding Tubes

The day before Terri Schiavo died, I happened to hear Randall Terry on NPR talking about the case. He said (I’m paraphrasing here) that it was important to keep Schiavo alive because there might be medical technologies coming any day which would restore her consciousness or improve her condition.

I’ve been rolling that around in my head a lot, because it seems to reflect something really odd in the attitude of the many of the most strident activists who demanded that Schiavo retain her feeding tube. “Err on the side of life,” they said. But most of them also spoke of the mystery of God’s will. This is the keystone of the official Catholic theology on these subjects, that human beings should not contravene God’s will by deciding for ourselves who lives and who dies, by making the hour of our deaths a matter of human contrivance. It’s why the Catholic Church’s attention to these matters is philosophically coherent, and American evangelicals who came along for the ride in the Schiavo case appear so manipulative or self-serving in contrast.

Even the Catholic argument is problematic when it comes up against the fact that the preservation of life in any of these contexts always involves the active agency of human beings. The only really consistent implementation of the implications of the argument for “culture of life” as it has appeared in recent months is found in those forms of Christianity whose adherents refuse all medical interventions whatsoever. That is true submission to the will of God, as it appears in such a characterization. As soon as you open the door a crack to allow that God wishes us to contrive our own ways and means of protecting life, of healing the sick, of staving off death—as soon as you stand behind feeding tubes, breathing machines, and so on, not to mention surgical intervention, artificial limbs, organ transplants, antibiotics, as soon as you stand like Randall Terry and say, “New medical technologies are just around the corner,” you’ve long since accepted that human beings contrive on matters of life and death, that the mystery of God’s plan for each of us runs straight through the will of human society.

God does not put feeding tubes in people. He does not hook them to breathing machines. He does not do CAT scans. He does not diagnose. He does not invent new medical technologies. If these are God’s will, then God Himself does not err on the side of life, God Himself chooses death, for not all the things which may yet exist to save our lives exist now, and they did not exist yesterday. A century ago there was no feeding tube: Terri Schiavo would have died a long time ago.

A feeding tube, a machine, a new medical technology: these are human things, human decisions, as surely as the human decision to unplug the machine or withdraw the tube. You cannot say that it is human intervention to pull the tube and forget it was human intervention to insert it. You cannot see God in one decision and absent him in the next. You cannot say it is God’s will that Terri Schiavo live another ten years so that human beings might invent a technology which will restore her to a fuller life. That technology is ours to invent, and it is ours to wrestle with the questions of life and death that this technology affects.

There is more. How can those who tell us to choose life at all costs—who demand that we intervene with all the medical technology, all the knowledge, at our command without any thought to the cost of such intervention—then show no perceptible interest in supporting the maintenance of life and health on a day-to-day basis? Why aren’t they out there with equal fervor for health care reform? For preventive medicine? For supporting medical and scientific research that would lead to the “new technologies” that Randall Terry expects?

God does not put in the feeding tube, and he provides none of that. Human beings do. If they demand that human beings put a tube in someone, how can they not demand that human beings do all the other things that they can do to sustain and nurture life?

If you start by conceding the moral and practical difficulty that life and death present to human beings, you can’t be called to account when you don’t have all the answers, when you’re not found with equal fervor in every possible moment and site that should demand your attention given your expressed views. If you start by categorizing everyone who disagrees with you as evil, by demanding that any judge or official or person who fails to bow to your will be removed or censured, then any break in the consistency of your alleged convictions glares like a neon light.

I don’t doubt the genuine depth of feeling among many people about Schiavo, or for that matter, about the illness and death of Pope John Paul II, who also had his life extended through medical intervention. I do doubt the authenticity of feeling among the political leaders, the organized activists, the shrill and mean-spirited who took every opportunity to arrogantly flog their supreme religiosity, to boast over the branches. I don’t think they gave a damn about Schiavo and I don’t think they care much about “the culture of life” either. They were just flexing their political muscles, just testing their weapons, just seeing what they could get away with.