TCS Daily

Which Terri Schiavo?

By Douglas Kern - March 24, 2005 12:00 AM

We want to deduce Terri Schiavo's wishes and act upon them -- but which Terri Schiavo?

Perhaps the Terri Schiavo of 1989 and the Terri Schiavo of 2005 are not the same. Perhaps great suffering engenders new selves, with interests and preferences far different from the old selves whose desires now command the respect of the law. And perhaps these new selves should command their own respect.

Any moral order based upon an appreciation of human freedom must understand selves to be continuous, stable things. By dint of that stability, a rational, autonomous agent -- a libertarian self, so to speak -- can form agreements that extend significantly into the future. Libertarian selves can enter into binding contracts for decades at a time, and be held accountable for the performance of those contracts -- no matter how their future selves unfold. And no libertarian would find it unjust to punish the future self of a criminal for serious crimes committed as a young adult.

Yet we sense that our selves are not entirely constant. Many libertarians believe that entry into and exit from legal marriage should be relatively easy, because the self of today may have romantic needs and impulses far different than those of the self of twenty years from now. By this reasoning, true freedom must meet the needs of our changing selves.

Similarly, Christianity teaches that believers must be born again in Christ. Christians must assume a new identity -- a new self -- radically different from the old one. Many Christians believe that the sins of a lifetime can be forgiven in an instant if they are sincerely confessed. Religious identity transcends the ordinary continuity of self.

And who has not leafed through an old yearbook or old photos, and failed to marvel at the grotesque foolishness of youth? Deprived of our hard-won wisdom and the insight that life-changing events provide, our younger selves seem so stunted as to be almost foreign. Time makes us strangers to ourselves.

I fear that, in our rush to compose our living wills, we will forget that the continuity of our selves may change profoundly should we fall victim to severe impairment. Our healthy selves may have little understanding of the new selves that will dwell in our broken bodies.

Bill Hobbs proposes that every American should be compelled to write a living will upon turning eighteen. Seems like a good idea in principle, but what kind of wills would eighteen year olds write? "I don't want to suffer -- pull the plug!" "Keep me alive, unless I'm a burden to others." "I want to leave behind a beautiful corpse -- kill me if I'm disfigured." Rigorous libertarian logic would compel us to make such sentiments binding when formally expressed. But do such sentiments render us freer? Or do they reflect the tyranny of our younger selves?

I don't mean to single out teenagers. The Internet is awash with critics and forum-posters that are keen to tell us just how much they wouldn't want to live like Terri Schiavo. How quickly we leap from "I would prefer not to live that way" to "I could never live that way" to "No one could possibly want to live that way." I wonder how many living wills will reflect such beliefs. I wonder how many future selves will regret them.

But I am no different. The thought of life with brain damage terrifies me. I can strongly sympathize with those who believe that such a life would be worse than death. I love reading and thinking, music and writing, problem-solving and clever badinage and sophisticated humor and happy memories. I cannot imagine happiness without such things.

And yet. And yet many people suffer terrible brain damage, or crippling pain, or near-total loss of limbs and faculties, and still choose life. I suspect that, prior to their accidents, many if not most of these poor souls would have cheerfully affixed their names to wills announcing their desire to die under such circumstances. Perhaps some of them still wish to die. But it appears that many more of them wish to live. They could not imagine enduring such a life, yet upon enduring it, they choose to continue it. A radical change of self has occurred, one for which no living will can plan, one that I can neither explain nor deny.

I do not want to believe that a diminished, impaired Doug Kern could be the same as the self I now enjoy. But if that broken Doug Kern is someone completely different from the self that I know and love, have I the right to condemn that future self to death? Can I say with any kind of certainty how such a future self will respond to his predicament? And even if my future self craves death after impairment, how can I be sure that such a craving springs from a rational choice -- as opposed to, say, clinical depression?

How can I possibly know how affliction will change me?

Something indescribable -- something transformative, for good or ill -- waits on the other side of suffering. We cannot know what we can endure until we endure it, for the act of enduring changes us. We cannot know what kind of lives we can accept until those lives are thrust upon us.

Medical calamities are different than marriages, different than crimes, different than long-term contracts. We do not choose miseries like those afflicting Terri Schiavo. We cannot mold ourselves to be fit for them. Such sorrows do not affirm our autonomy, or bind our energies to productive, illuminating ends. They render our selves discontinuous. Perhaps, then, we should not assess such calamities from the vantage point of continuous selves. Perhaps we should acknowledge that no plan, no wish, no will can truly articulate who we will be and how we will feel on the other side of the divide between our whole and broken selves. To accept that fact is not dehumanizing, but rehumanizing. We are more than the sum of our current desires.

And thus Kern dismisses every living will everywhere, which can't be right. The awe of transformation answers no question and solves no hard problem. Inadequate though our plans and wills may be, can the government make better choices? Can our families? Or are these questions the kind of imponderables for which no solution is ever adequate?

I don't know. But I am not afraid to err against death. Whatever we do not or cannot know, we do know that most people prefer life to death. We do know that many who reject the possibility of a painful or limited life eventually overcome their misgivings to accept their lives as they are. We do know that the harms that spring from a life unduly prolonged are as nothing compared to the harms of a death unjustly inflicted. Only in these few and insufficient truths can we hope to resolve the tension between the many selves who walk the paths of our lives. We do not betray libertarian ideals when we concede that our immediate preferences may inflict irreversible damage upon the selves we may yet become. The best defense against such damage is an incorrigible bias towards life.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributing writer.



TCS Daily Archives