Sunday, March 20, 2005

Let us consider two articles in today's New York Times. On the front page is an article about Terry Schiavo, the woman in Florida who has been in a "persistent vegetative state" for over a decade after a heart attack. The U.S. Congress is in the process of passing a bill to "save" Mrs. Schiavo by restoring the feeding tube that has kept her alive all these years, and which a Florida court permitted to be removed on Friday.
Representative Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas and the House majority leader, who is at the center of the Congressional intervention, said on Saturday: "We should investigate every avenue before we take the life of a living human being. That is the very least we can do." In Crawford, the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, said: "Everyone recognizes that time is important here. This is about defending life."

The hypocrisy of these men's statements is simply stunning - they have the unmitigated chutzpah to claim that "defending life" is their highest value, after having gotten the United States into a war that seemingly has no end, where over 1,500 American soldiers have been killed, hundreds of American civilian contractors have been killed, and many thousands of Iraqis, many of them just as innocent as Mrs. Schiavo. (And we don't even allow our military to try to figure out how many Iraqis have been killed, as if their lives had no meaning for us!)

(And I say this as a person who supported the Iraq war and I still - barely - think that at least we aren't as bad as Saddam Hussein and have done some good in Iraq, amid the suicide truck bombs and the shootings and the barbers in Baghdad who are being killed by Islamist hooligans because they are shaving off men's beards!)

Here's a voice of reason on the results of removing a feeding tube:
To many people, death by removing a feeding tube brings to mind the agony of starvation. But medical experts say that the process of dying that begins when food and fluids cease is relatively straightforward, and can cause little discomfort.

"From the data that is available, it is not a horrific thing at all," said Dr. Linda Emanuel, the founder of the Education for Physicians in End-of-Life Care Project at Northwestern University.

In fact, declining food and water is a common way that terminally ill patients end their lives, because it is less painful than violent suicide and requires no help from doctors.

Terri Schiavo, who is in a persistent vegetative state, is "probably not experiencing anything at all subjectively," said Dr. Emanuel, and so the question of discomfort, from a scientific point of view, is not in dispute.

Patients who are terminally ill and conscious and refuse food and drink at the end of life say that they do not generally experience pangs of hunger, since their bodies do not need much food. But they can suffer from dry mouth and other symptoms of dehydration that can be treated effectively.

Once food and water stop, death usually comes in about two weeks, and is caused by effects of dehydration, not the loss of nutrition, said Dr. Sean Morrison, a professor of geriatrics and palliative care at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "They generally slip into a peaceful coma," he said. "It's very quiet, it's very dignified - it's very gentle."

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