March 26, 2005

Column 2005-3-26 Commentary

Well, Brooks's last column was a nice change of pace, but today things are back to normal. Today sees Brooks take on the Terry Schiavo case by using one of his favorite column structures, the false equivalence: in this case, he draws a false equivalence between the arguments of so-called "social conservatives" (actually fundamentalist Christians) and so-called "social liberals" (actually most Americans). Before we go any further, let's make one thing clear: the "social conservatives" Brooks refers to are extremists whose views are not shared by most Americans. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans believe that Congress should not intervene in this case, that Congress is intervening purely for political advantage, that the decision to remove the feeding tube was the correct one, that if their spouse or child was in Terry Schiavo's state they too would remove the tube, and that if they were in a persisent vegetative state, they would not want to be kept alive (this last viewpoint was endorsed by more than 80% of respondents). Even self-identified evangelicals are evenly split between supporting removing the feeding tube and demanding that it be kept in. "No wonder many of us feel agonized this week, betwixt and between," Brooks says at the end of today's column, but it appears that this is not actually the case, or not the case outside of Brooks's social circle.

Brooks begins his column by claiming that "The core belief that social conservatives bring to cases like Terri Schiavo's is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic." Which explains the massive evangelical demonstrations against the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Who could forget the protests by fundamentalist Christians when the news that over a hundred prisoners had died in U.S. custody abroad was released? Or the vigils held outside the Texas state capitol when Governor Bush signed a law allowing doctors to deny life support if they believe that it is useless, even if the family wants to keep the family member alive? Oh, that's right, no such protests actually happened. Apparently, individual lives have intrinsic value only when they are the individual lives of brain-dead white women, and not when they are, for instance, black babies. In fact, National Right to Life, which is helping to lead the fight to keep Terry Schiavo alive, helped write the Texas Futile Care Law under which Sun Hudson was removed from life support. And it's hard to reconcile the belief that life has intrinsic value with statements such as this one, by extreme right-wing talk radio host Hal Turner, or with the arrest of a man who tried to steal a gun to help Schiavo, or the man who put a bounty on the heads of Michael Schiavo and a federal judge who refused to order Schiavo's feeding tube to be reinserted. But if the hypocrisy of the foot soldiers in the pro-Terry fight is stunning, the hypocrisy of the leaders, such as Tom Delay, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush, is even worse. For instance, Bush finds the Terry Schiavo case of such importance that he is forced to cut short his vacation to return to Washington and sign the bill moving her case to the federal courts. Those of you who can remember as far back as December may recall that it was several days after the tsunami struck before Bush could be bothered to leave the ranch and return to D.C. Tom Delay isn't even trying to hide his politicization of this case: "This is exactly the kind of issue that's going on in America, that attacks against the conservative moment, against me and against many others." Or consider this statement from the head of the Traditional Values Coalition: "What this issue has done is it has galvanized people the way nothing could have done in an off-election year. That is what I see as the blessing that dear Terri's life is offering to the conservative Christian movement in America." And note further that the money to pay for Terry Schiavo's medical care for the past 15 years has come from two sources: a malpractice settlement against the doctors who orginally treated her and Medicaid. If the Republicans had had their way years ago, neither source of funding would be available, or would be greatly reduced.

Some "social conservatives" base their assertion that Terry should be kept alive on the contention that she is actually not in a persistent vegetative state, so it is worth pointing out that every single reputable neurologist who has actually examined her personally, as opposed to looking at a view minutes of videotape, has concluded that she is in in a PVS. A representative example of the non-reputable neurologists (leaving out the diagnoses of such people as Frist, who is a heart surgeon) who have examined her is one Dr. William Hammesfahr, touted as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine (yes, you read that correctly), who was disciplined by Florida in 2003. Another common source for allegations that Schiavo is somewhat conscious is Carla Iyer, who was Schiavo's nurse in 1995 and 1996, but Ms. Iyer is so lacking in credibility that Schiavo's parents never even called on her to testify. Others point to a 260 second video clip in which Terry Schiavo appears to be responding to stimuli, ignoring the fact that the tape was created from four and a half hours of footage. And then there are the affidavits -- ably debunked at the previous link -- by 17 "experts" who claimed that Schiavo could be revived on the basis of the above video clip and various news reports. The facts are quite simple: Schiavo was bulimic, her heart stopped due to a potassium imbalance, her brain was denied oxygen for up to five minutes, and as a result her cerebral cortex was liquified (this link has a CAT scan image of Schiavo's brain). This kind of brain liquification is irreparable: the brain tissue is just gone. Consequently, Schiavo cannot perform any higher brain functions, and will never be able to again. She cannot even swallow, which is why she requires a feeding tube (one wonders if the people arrested as they tried to bring her cups of water understood that if they actually put that water in her mouth, she would have choked to death). From a strictly biological viewpoint, she is alive, but from any other perspective she has been dead for years.

And this leads directly to Brooks's definition of a "social liberal" as one who believes "that the quality of life is a fundamental human value." Whether or not this is true, it is completely irrelevant to this case. Schiavo cannot be said to be living except in a strictly biological sense. Her higher brain functions are gone and will not be coming back, and as those higher brain function include things like consciousness and personality, it is entirely reasonable to say that Terry Schiavo, the person, is dead, and all that remains is a collection of cells being kept alive artificially. In fact, the best reason for Schiavo's feeding tube to be removed is to allow the people around her to accept the fact of her death and move on: it makes no difference to Schiavo, who cannot even feel hunger or thirst. And even if Brooks is right about "social liberals" in general believing that quality of life is more important than living, the conclusions he draws from this assertion are as unwarranted as they are vague. This argument is "morally thin", according to Brooks, but it is really unclear why. Perhaps he thinks that this argument can be generalized to the point where the ability of serial killers to kill becomes a quality-of-life issue, in which case the only possible response is to laugh in his face. It seems fairly reasonable to me, and according to polls, to most of the American people, that if it is obvious that someone is going to die, and that they are suffering considerably, and they decide that they would rather die now than hang on through a few more agonizing months, then they should be allowed to die. Similarly, if someone has lost consciousness and will not regain it, and family members or a living will make it clear that they would not wish to continue existing on life support, they should be allowed to die, in accordance with their wishes. Naturally, if the available evidence suggests that they would want to be kept alive, they should be kept alive as long as possible, but the option to choose death should be there, and there is nothing morally thin about that. In fact, one could argue that it is immoral to prolong someone's life against their wish if they are suffering. And whatever happened to the conservative shibboleth of personal responsibility?

But the real reason that Brooks brings up the morality argument is so he can dismiss the liberals questions about "jurisdictions, legalisms, politics and procedures" as mere attempts to change the subject. This allows him to ignore the extent to which the Republican Party is ignoring basic Constitutional principles in its attempt to pander to the extremists of the religious right, or rather to keep Schiavo alive. Tom Delay, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush are combining to undermine the independence of the judical system in the United States, an attack on a basic Constitutional principle that is all the more amazing for coming not in a time of war (like Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, for instance) or national emergency but to prevent a brain-dead woman from dying. From the pinkos at, we find that "The independence of the federal judiciary and the societal agreement that its pronouncements must be honored is a hallmark of the American political system." According to the American Bar Association, "An independent judiciary with judges who decide issues under law without fear or favor is a necessary means by which to accomplish both real and apparent justice for all." Some guy named Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 78 that "The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution." By using the powers of the legislative and executive branches to overturn a decision in the courts -- a decision that, moreover, went through multiple courts over a period of seven years -- the Republican party is, at the behest of the religious right, doing its best to destroy one of the basic principles of American democracy. The legal analyst for CBS calls this law "the most blatant and egregious power-grab by one branch over another in my lifetime." And Brooks dismisses liberal unease about this as an attempt to "shift arguments away from morality and on to process." There are certainly moral questions involved, but the fact that the independence of the judiciary is being compromised is not exactly unimportant.

The Schiavo case gives Brooks a chance to pontificate on morality, and there's nothing Brooks likes better than a chance to pontificate on morality, especially if it gives him the opportunity to talk about how immoral liberals are. And that's especialy understandable in this case, because the alternative is to try to explain why a Republican Party that supposedly opposes big government is intervening in a family matter. Or why a Republican party that is supposedly conservative is attempting to undermine the basic Constitutional principle of judicial independence. Or why a Republican Party that supposedly supports states' rights is attempting to take the authority to resolve this case from the state of Florida. Or how the religious right obtained such a chokehold on the Republican Party that it could go ahead with this issue despite massive opposition from the American people. But that would require that Brooks actually look at what the Republican Party is, rather than what he thinks it is, and it appears that he exhausted his quota of that for this year in last Saturday's column on corruption. Well, at least we know what to expect now: more of Brooks making excuses for the Republican party, no matter what they do. Unless, of course, we get lucky and the Times decides to fire him.