Terri Schiavo and the Banality of Evil


In response to Toby Katz’s entry about Terri Schiavo’s death, “Michael” made the following comment:

If you starve an animal to death, you will be put in jail. Why is Terri worse than an animal?

Actually, that’s not hard to answer. Princeton Professor Peter Singer wrote many years ago that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.” In the Schiavo case, this bit of theoretical reasoning has been applied in reality, but to the end of life rather than its beginning.

Several months ago, the Princeton Alumni Weekly provided a feature article on Peter Singer, discussing how controversial he was before he arrived — and how accepted is his presence as a Professor of Ethics six years later. A student named Evan Baehr, “a self-described Christian conservative,” said that he came to Singer’s class “ready to go to war,” and discovered that Singer was “not nearly as controversial as I thought he was going to be.”

And that is exactly the point. Singer makes homicide sound reasonable. As another scholar of ethics put it, “Peter Singer is a utilitarian reductionist who isn’t afraid to go where the logic of his premises takes him. It’s often uncomfortable territory but the logic is hard to fault.” That is true, and I heard in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, Dean of Ner Israel of Baltimore, that abortion-on-demand came into society via the same route. Initially, it was inconceivable that any woman would be permitted to kill off her fetus at will. There had to be a good reason — risk to the mother’s life, for example, or a determination that the fetus was not viable. But then people said, “let’s think about it. Let’s discuss the meaning of fetal ‘life’.” This is what paved the way for the Supreme Court’s determination that prohibition of abortion is a violation of “privacy” and therefore unconstitutional.

Let us have the facts clear. Terri Schiavo was not dying, and required no extraordinary measures to survive. Until she was slowly starved and dehydrated, all she needed was a feeding tube. I am certain that Peter Singer is delighted with Judge Greer et al. Putting her to death is a real-world application of utilitarian, Singerian values over any set of ethics which grants inherent value to human life — e.g., Judaism and Roman Catholicism.

The media made frequent comparisons recently between the Schiavo case, and the death of House Speaker Tom DeLay’s father 16 years ago. A “news” story from the Tribune Newspapers (Chicago Tribune, LA Times, etc.) is but one of those that tried to convince readers that the cases were essentially the same: “Both patients were severely brain-damaged. Both were incapable of surviving without continuing medical assistance. Both were said to have expressed a desire to be spared life sustained by machine. And neither left a living will.”

This comparison is as grotesque as it is ridiculous. In the DeLay case, “extraordinary measures to prolong life were not initiated.” Mr. DeLay was permitted to die naturally. But Christopher Reeve, “Superman” (who was disabled after a riding accident), needed (far) more ongoing life support than Terri Schiavo. According to current reports, so does the Pope. The news media wants us to think that letting a disabled person starve to death should be called “being permitted to die naturally” because of the brain damage she suffered.

Edward S. Herman, in his review of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was based on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, states that “Arendt’s thesis was that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.”

Society has come to accept Peter Singer’s philosophy of the utilitarian value of life, and judges are now starving Terri Schiavo with the energy of good bureacrats. They have accepted the idea that a life is only as valuable as it is “productive” in our terms.

Singer suggested “regarding newborn infants as replaceable, as we now regard fetuses,” and wrote (Practical ethics 1979/2ed 1992), “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of a happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effects on others it would according to the total view be right to kill him.”

Yet no one, in this “hypothetical” (aka not-yet-implemented) scenario, bothers to ask the child what he or she might actually want. An infant, of course, cannot answer. Since a child with Down’s Syndrome cannot study advanced physics, Singer — and, sadly, much of society — assumes that the only logical course is to abort the pregnancy — and Singer would say that even a child born with Down’s should be killed. I am acquainted with several individuals born with Down’s Syndrome who live in my neighborhood. If Singer truly believed in “happiness” as the standard, this alone would be reason to celebrate their presence — for whatever reason, they are some of the happiest people around.

In the 1950’s European women took the drug thalodimide for morning sickness and as a sleeping pill. Then it was discovered that even one dose in early pregnancy could severely stunt the growth of fetal arms and legs — thousands of deformed babies were born. Yet you can read multiple stories of people born with these deformities who are happy and fulfilled, with healthy children of their own. It was reported that a survey of “thalidomide babies” determined that they were no more likely to have preferred not to be born than was the general population, despite their disabilities (I’ve been unable to find reference to this via Google).

Despite this, Singer advocates killing off any future thalidomide babies, simply because courts awarded judgements to the children in compensation for their missing limbs. Clearly, Singer overlooked the fundamental tenet that money cannot buy happiness — the victims of thalidomide manage to be happy all on their own, despite their disabilities, and that has nothing to do with the any court settlement.

Harriet McBryde Johnson is a quadriplegic and disabled-rights activist whom Singer invited into his Practical Ethics class, to explain why she thought his views on the killing of disabled infants were so horrifying. “Singer is easy to talk to, good company,” she wrote, recounting her time on the campus. “Too bad he sees lives like mine as avoidable mistakes.” Confronted with living, breathing proof of disabled human beings who declared that they preferred life to having been aborted, Singer did not change his views one iota.

Among Singer’s premises is the baseless idea that fully physically and mentally-able people will be happier than the disabled. He ignores all the contrary evidence. Singer claims to favor happiness, but what he truly favors is a better gene pool. The reader should hardly need to be reminded that calculations in favor of a preferred gene pool have, historically, not worked out too well for Jews.

Returning to end of life issues, this is also why there is no national disability rights movement, in any country on earth, that is in favor of enabling euthanasia. “Not Dead Yet, an organization of persons with disabilities who oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia, maintains that the starvation and dehydration of Terri Schiavo will put the lives of thousands of severely disabled children and adults at risk.” They are terrified of the gradual application of Singerian reasoning to determine what is “best” for the disabled individual. In the absence of clear and unambiguous written instructions, the judge took it upon himself to interpret the deepest layers of meaning in Terri Schiavo’s casual oral statements made years earlier, and declared that she would want to die.

Along with this ringing endorsement of Singer’s model of utilitarian ethics, there is another reason why Orthodox Jewry is opposed to the termination of Terri Schiavo’s life: the judges’ casual dismissal of her own system of ethics, as reflected in her Catholic upbringing, heritage, and values. Clearly, Catholicism does not support ending life in this fashion. And it was equally clear, even to the judge, that Terri came from a tight and religious Roman Catholic family.

Yet her Roman Catholic upbringing and “values base” played no part in the judge’s decision. He simply concluded that when she saw a TV program about a man in a coma and said she would never want to live like that, she was speaking like “Americans” typically do — making no distinction between taking heroic measures to continue life, vs. a simple feeding tube. The failure to make this distinction is both grotesque, as said earlier, and also entirely foreign to her Catholic values.

This is just one more way that sincerely-held religious values are ignored by our society. Another interesting case this week highlights this phenomenon from a different angle: in 1995, a jury sentenced a murderer to death. This week, an appeals court ruled that the jury had referred to materials not part of the case, and thus their verdict was invalid. What were those “materials”? The Bible. “Jurors could have been prejudiced by reading a passage from Leviticus that commands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The irony here is that the “eye-for-an-eye” verse was employed only in order to convince one juror, a Christian, that a death penalty was consonant with his values. Meaning had he not been a Christian, he would most likely have voted for the death penalty anyway — but, no matter. Reference to religious texts as a source for ethical values was considered enough to poison the jury. Religion is consciously being pushed to the sidelines as a source for moral decision-making — and being replaced by Singer’s utilitarian version of “ethics.”

Judaism, like Catholicism, distinguishes between heroic measures to preserve life on the one hand, and helping a disabled person have access to nutrition on the other. Problems do not end there, for Judaism also calls for life support, once implemented, to be maintained. We do not believe in this utilitarian outlook. Life is life, and life is to be preserved. Nonetheless, Orthodox Jewish families often find themselves under pressure from doctors to “let the patient go.”

But even one who would succumb to a doctor’s pressure to cease heroic measures, may still see the difference between that and death by starvation.

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5 Responses

  1. donna says:

    I am just sick over the killing of Terri Schaivo. When her “husband” took another woman and had children, he automatically had a major conflict of intrest in whether she lived or died.Th The judges should’ve been forced to visit Terri in the hospice and see what they were doing. Based on a remark that Terri made years ago, in relation to a dying family member, she was judged and murdered by the court system. There are different laws for different people in this country, and apathetic judges who care more about the power they weild, than the consequences of their rulings. I am now boycotting the state of Florida, it’s products, and it’s attractions. Will it matter to them? No, but I will not support a state that commits a horror like this.

  2. Sholom Simon says:

    Dilbert writes:

    But I dont think that we want the Christian majority in the US defining what life is, and what life is worth saving and what isnt. And if faced with the options of too much choice and not enough choice, as the Jewish minority it is better to have too much choice, and to make sure that we use those choices wisely.

    I wholeheartedly agree. A good example of the potential overreach, of injecting religious definitions into secular law, is provided by John Danforth, current minister, former (conservative GOP) sentator from Missouri. In a

    dilbert says:

    You are absolutely right about Peter Singer(the Princeton one, there is a very nice ethicist named Singer at the University of Toronto). His utilitarian views are dispicable. The article a few years ago in the New York Times magazine by the disabled lady who debated with him was quite enlightening for the fact that she had absolutely no impact on his views, when in fact she was a living negation of his views, and he did not have the intellectual honesty to admit that. We, as orthodox Jews, who do not accept his viewpoint should indeed make public our disagreement with his point of view.

    However, I think that the connection that you are making between Singer and Ms. Schiavo is not really supported. You can certainly read a connection into the case, but there really isn’t one. This case is about the right to accept or refuse medical care. And, it is a case about surrogates making a judgement about the wishes of a patient when they are incapable of making a decision. It is about the chain of surrogacy, and which relationship is closer than others. If Ms. Schiavo had a living will, where she specifically spelled out that she did not want live in a persistant vegetative state, there would be no case, no brouhaha, no publicity, no marches, no Jesse Jackson. The objection to this case to the perception that death is being imposed on Ms. Schiavo by an adulterous husband.

    We as a community would be much better off spending our energy and moral outrage not on the specifics of this case, but at the underlying climate and law that defines food/water as medical intervention, not as essentials of life. We would be better off combating the perception that persistant vegetative state is not life, and that ending that life is a good thing. But I dont think that we want the Christian majority in the US defining what life is, and what life is worth saving and what isn’t. And if faced with the options of too much choice and not enough choice, as the Jewish minority it is better to have too much choice, and to make sure that we use those choices wisely. Certainly we must combat the viewpoint of the Peter Singers of the world, but we must choose the appropriate venues and battlefields, so that are views are seen clearly, and not confused with the views of others, or mixed in with other issues.

  3. Seth Gordon says:

    Why should we say that because Ms. Schaivo was “raised in a tight and religious Catholic family”, she can be presumed to hold “Catholic values”? First, consider the vast number of Americans who identify themselves as Catholic but ignore the church’s teachings on birth control. Second, I see no reason why the values of Ms. Schaivo’s parents should be assumed to trump the values of her husband. After all, she freely chose her husband as an adult, but had no choice about who her parents would be.

  4. Sholom Simon says:

    Once again I must object. “Society has come to accept Peter Singers philosophy of the utilitarian value of life, and judges are now starving Terri Schiavo with the energy of good bureacrats. They have accepted the idea that a life is only as valuable as it is productive in our terms.”

    The problem is with the Florida statutes, not the judges. There are dozens of judges that have ruled on this — do you think, for a minute, chas v’shalom, that they all (and most are conservative Republicans) accept Peter Singer’s outrageous extremist views?

    What is happening is, of course, a gross violation of halacha. But it’s a straightfoward application of Florida law. That’s why no court has even come close to stopping this.