Monday, March 21, 2005

What kind of life?

Lileks writes about Terri Schiavo, and manages to make a reference to Star Trek. Captain Pike in particular. Which really makes me uncomfortable because of my views on the whole Captain Pike controversy. But go read Lileks, then come back and I'll try to explain.

Oh, here's a nice portion:

In short: err on the side of life is not a bad motto to keep in mind. This seems simple enough. I respect those who nod, count to three, and offer a soft “however” so that we may refine the particulars. But I don’t have much time for those who hear “err on the side of life” and automatically bristle, because they hear the voice of someone who, damn their black and God-addled brain, once sent $10 to a politician who opposed parental notification law that did not have a judicial review.

You may not always agree with that sort of person. You may have no need for them. But you never think you have need of any chocks until you're in the truck, and you realize it's rolling down the hill. Backwards.

Now about Captain Pike. In the very first Star Trek pilot -- when the good ship Enterprise was under the command of Captain Pike, and there wasn't a Shatner within miles of the set -- the Captain is captured by the big-headed Talosians who surround Pike with blissful illusions so that he will happily live out a fantasy existence in their human zoo. Pike's fellow captive is a woman who was horribly disfigured when her ship crashed. She chooses to remain in a fantasy where she is young and beautiful. But in Pike's refusal to embrace illusory happiness, the show makes a strong case in favor of reality, no matter how harsh that existence might be.

Later in the series came the follow-up, when Pike, now horribly disfigured himself, confined to some sort of mobile life-support system, unable to even speak, seeks to return to the Talosians where he now wishes to embrace the fantasy existence. With this episode, Star Trek undoes the message of the first pilot. The message in the sequel episode is that illusory happiness is just fine, thank you, when your quality of life sucks.

And it's hard to argue against that. But who gets to decide if your quality of life sucks enough?

We can't give Terri Schiavo a Talosian illusion. Does this mean that her life is not worth living? Terri Schiavo can't tell us what she wants, and if she'd want to refuse sustenance. But what's happening to Terri Schiavo isn't anything like assisted suicide. It's slow-motion murder. She isn't being given a lethal injection and quietly drifting off to eternal dreamland. She is slowly, agonizingly being starved to death. If we decided to deal with death-row inmates in this manner, the outrage would be deafening. If I thought my old dog needed to be put down, but instead of going to the vet for the procedure I did it myself by starving the elderly beast, I would likely be arrested for cruelty.

And yet a judge in Florida has decreed that this is how our nation will deal with people like Terri Schiavo.

What kind of life is considered "quality" enough? Do we really want courts deciding this issue for us? Regardless of what happens to Terri Schiavo next, we cannot let this issue pass from the public consciousness until we can be certain that an old man in a robe won't someday make that call without our consent.


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