As Featured in The Oregonian
For those who have been following Perrspectives' take on the Schiavo affair, my defense of individual liberty and personal autonomy can be found in the March 28th Op Ed section of The Oregonian:
"Liberty and the Culture of Living"
You can also read the full text below.
Liberty and the Culture of Living
Monday, March 28, 2005
A week ago, President Bush and the congressional leadership turned the tragedy of one American family into a sad and ominous day for all Americans.
With political opportunism and partisan advantage, they trampled on the personal and private decisions Terri Schiavo had made about her life -- and death. In so doing, they put the liberty of each American at risk.
Those who so casually speak of promoting freedom abroad chose to utterly ignore its requirements at home. Citing a "culture of life," the president and his fellow travelers ran roughshod over what former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once termed that most basic of American liberties, "the right to be left alone." As a result, they have jeopardized those protections that ensure the legitimacy -- and morality -- of government intrusion into our most personal decisions.
The Republican leadership would do well to reread philosopher John Stuart Mill, one of the best friends a libertarian ever had. In his classic "On Liberty," Mill sought to explain when power "can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." For him, virtually any government interference with a person's "self-regarding" acts was unjustified and morally unsupportable.
Unjustified, that is, with one major exception: slavery. The state cannot allow an individual to offer himself into bondage. As Mill put it, "the principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free."
The "not free to be unfree" standard for government interference with our liberties, however, introduces an expanded notion of personal autonomy into the debate over our liberties and government paternalism. Slavery is not the only type of coercion that severely impacts the personal autonomy and free exercise of decision-making central to American notions of liberty. For example, individuals confronting the prolonged, extreme and continuous pain of terminal illness clearly face a condition of diminished autonomy. And a woman who exists in a "persistent vegetative state" enjoys no autonomy at all. Certainly, the same government that rightly prevents one person from surrendering his free, autonomous existence cannot then require another to remain in essence unfree.
Which brings us to Terri Schiavo. Prior to her illness, she expressed her end-of-life wishes to her husband, a man she freely chose as her partner. Throughout this 15-year tragedy, the judicial system has honored those preferences and, in the absence of a living will, recognized her husband as her proxy. Both the Florida and U.S. courts rightly chose to respect her personal freedom and uphold the principle of autonomy.
Polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans stand by the wishes of the Schiavos. Intuitively, American are supporting the best and noblest principles of liberty as John Stuart Mill summarized 150 years ago:
"All that makes existence valuable to any one depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person's voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty."
As for Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, what principles can they claim to have upheld?
Certainly not the claim of "erring on the side of life." After all, as governor of Texas, Bush signed the 1999 Texas Futile Care Law, which only two weeks ago was used by a Texas hospital as the basis to halt life-sustaining treatment for a terminally ill 6-month-old over his mother's objections. As for DeLay, he had been silent on the Sciavo case for the past 15 years -- that is, until his looming ethical implosion threatened his downfall.
Certainly not the principle of federalism. Over 15 years, 19 judges at the state and federal level followed Florida law, ensuring that the Sciavos due process rights under the 5th and 14th amendments to the Constitution have been more than completely fulfilled. The U.S. Supreme Court rightly chose not to even hear the case. Apparently, "states rights," like "judicial activism," is a term conservatives use only when they lose.
And apparently not the Hippocratic Oath. The cynicism of Frist, formerly a physician, is the most naked of all. It is sadly ironic that Mr. Tort Reform himself would commit the congressional equivalent of "witness malpractice." Lacking expertise as a neurologist and having never examined the patient, Frist weighed in, nonetheless, concluding that Schiavo is not in a persistent vegetative state after "an hour or so" of viewing video footage.
Ours is -- or should be -- a culture that sees preserving individual autonomy as vital to liberty. Call it "the culture of living." It is a culture that values the privacy, personal freedom and unique path to happiness of each American. A woman's body and the decisions she and her partner make regarding their reproductive choices are no one's business but their own, and certainly not the government's. A society that values personal autonomy sees in emerging stem cell technologies the potential to free its members from the prospect of currently incurable diseases.
As Oregonians have insisted, a "culture of living" does not condemn the terminally ill to the enslavement of their own bodies.
And that culture certainly should respect the decision a woman freely made as to how and whether her life, no longer free, shall be continued.