“Euthanasia” is one of many euphemisms that have managed to stick in the moral mud of our late modern world. The current sense dates from the 18th century. Before that, the word had meant only “a gentle and easy death.” The Enlightenment extension of this, to the implication that such a death could be chosen, replaced God’s with man’s will. The concept emerged with the pantomime Roman stoicism of the French Revolution, the cult of the “noble suicide.”
As Peggy Noonan quotes the poet Keats, we have now long had a constituency “half in love with ease-ful death”, and today it is no longer half. By now we have reached post-modernity, and the word “euthanasia” stands in for “judicial murder.” The euthanasiacs want the right not only to arrange their own easeful deaths but to arrange them also for the defenseless inconvenient among their families and friends.
It is just a word. But as George Orwell said, people who murder the language will finally murder other human beings. And this is exactly what is illustrated in the history of the word euthanasia. The case of Terri Schiavo, a rare one in which media attention could be welcomed, made plain to huge numbers, not only in the United States but quite around the world, what it had come down to. And the United States is a jurisdiction with nothing to match the right-to-die legislation of contemporary Europe. Not only in crazy Holland, but increasingly across the continent, it is now possible to put down the elderly infirm, the malformed young, and the depressed of all ages, with little less risk of legal intervention than to put down cats and dogs.
In the final stage of the legal melodrama over Terri Schiavo, it was President Bush who had the wit to say that we “must always err on the side of life.” This, it became clear, American courts were no longer prepared to do. Not just one court, but one after another, Florida and federal, consistently erred on the side of death. From beginning to end, each construed requests for intervention in the narrowest possible way to prevent real help from reaching an invalid woman. It has been well-said, and well-repeated, that no inmate on death row was so devoid of legal protection as Terri Schiavo in her final ordeal.
Ultimately, a police guard was mounted to prevent anyone from giving her water orally. This tells the whole monstrous story. I have attended the bedside of a man who was dying in similar circumstances, and no “media expert” can tell me that dehydration is a painless process. To the end, my friend, a man as brave as they come, physically pleaded for sponge and ice chips.
“The law is a ass, a idiot,” in the opinion of Dickens’s Mr. Bumble. It was an opinion that could be shared by many millions of helpless onlookers, as the Schiavo case unfolded inexorably through Holy Week, pregnant with symbolism that any true Christian could appreciate. The congressional events of Palm Sunday, the innocent victim, the thirsting for water. The crowds. At the end of which, a loving God took Terri into His care. And once again human justice had been dispensed by the learned and charming Pontius Pilate.
It was not a small and insignificant case, or even a hard case with which to make bad law. It was a case that showed that the whole constitutional order of the United States could now be put, in defiance of public will, in the service of the nihilism and narcissism that are summed in the phrase, “culture of death.”
And the battle continues for our redemption and for the pursuit of justice even in this world—for the right to life. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.”