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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

 
Whose Family Is It Anyway?

One of my favorite readers (you know who you are) posited an interesting supposition in an e-mail last night that has been obliquely addressed today by Charles Krauthamer. My friend wondered if some of the lizard brain activity on the right surrounding this Schiavo issue might be wingnut parental reaction to seeing their children reject their conservative views. I know that it has been a bone of contention in my family for decades.

Krauthamer says this:

In this case, the loved ones disagree. The husband wants Terri to die; the parents do not. The Florida court gave the surrogacy to her husband, under the generally useful rule that your spouse is the most reliable diviner of your wishes: You pick your spouse and not your parents, and you have spent most of your recent years with your spouse and not your parents.

The problem is that although your spouse probably knows you best, there is no guarantee that he will not confuse his wishes with yours. Terri's spouse presents complications. He has a girlfriend, and has two kids with her. He clearly wants to marry again. And a living Terri stands in the way.

Now, all of this may be irrelevant in his mind. He may actually be acting entirely based on his understanding of his wife's wishes. And as she left nothing behind, the courts have been forced to conclude, on the basis of his testimony, that she would prefer to be dead.

That is why this is a terrible case. The general rule of spousal supremacy leads you here to a thoroughly repulsive conclusion. Repulsive because in a case where there is no consensus among the loved ones, one's natural human sympathies suggest giving custody to the party committed to her staying alive and pledging to carry the burden themselves.


First of all, a living Terri doesn't stand in the way. Michael Schiavo could have divorced her years ago if he just wanted to move on. He says that he believes he is carrying out his wife's wishes and will not abandon her to live as she said she would never have wanted to live. The rule of spousal "supremacy" does not lead to a repulsive conclusion at all, even to Krauthamer, who like 87% of the country says he would want his feeding tube removed if he were in Schiavo's position. In many people's minds the repulsive outcome is this ghoulish need to force this poor woman's body to carry on when it is clear that it is nothing more than an emotional crutch for her parents.

More importantly, I think that Krauthamer may be expressing the views of plenty of "conservative" people who want to control their children's lives long past the time they are legally and morally allowed to do so. That particular kind of control is often the default temperamental style of right wingers. They wish to control everything, particularly the people around them.

Krauthamer goes on to conclude that we have no way of knowing if Schiavo is really braindead (which puts him the same camp as the other Republican doctors who have discarded their fealty to reason for political reasons) but he also rightly says that the Florida courts upheld the law as we know it. His solution is to change the law:

There is no good outcome to this case. Except perhaps if Florida and the other states were to amend their laws and resolve conflicts among loved ones differently -- by granting authority not necessarily to the spouse but to whatever first-degree relative (even if in the minority) chooses life and is committed to support it. Call it Terri's law. It would help prevent our having to choose in the future between travesty and tragedy.


Essentially, he's saying that parents should have a veto over the spouse in these issues. (If it were the spouse who wanted to use extraordinary measure to keep the patient alive, current law would already suffice.) Therefore, he's promoting the idea that there are cases in which your "first degree relatives" have the power of life and death over you in circumstances where your spouse disagrees. What a concept.

I had a colleague years ago who was in a terrible car accident and severely brain damaged at the age of 33. He had been estranged for years from his abusive family and had been more or less raised by others to whom he was very close. He was quite wealthy and had left his surrogate family all of his money in his will. He was also unmarried and did not have a living will, although those who knew him said that he had expressed many times that he would not want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures. His estranged family were extremely religious and insisted that he be kept alive at all costs. Being "first degree" relatives they had the right to make that decision. I lost track of the situation after five years or so, but at that time he was still living in a persistent vegetative state. The money ran out and he was put on medicaid. I heard that his family rarely visited.

I know that this doesn't track exactly with the Schiavo case and that there could have been no legal rights conferred on the adopted family short of a durable power of attorney. It does, however, illustrate why it is important that adults be allowed to create their own families through marriage. For some people their experience with their parents is a joyful, lifelong relationship. But for others, adulthood marks the beginning of their freedom and separation from people who do not share their values. When they marry, their choice of spouse is often in conflict with their parent's wishes. If people truly value marriage they must also honor the fact that the people involved made a decision to create a new family when they did it. That new family is the one that must take precedence in situations like this.

My right wing dad doesn't come from the religious end of the spectrum; he's more of the old fashioned John Birch and racist variety. He doesn't go along with this Schiavo thing largely because he's had to face these decisions with my mother (who died of cancer) and now himself. Like many Republicans, he's remarkably pragmatic about these things. However, if I had married someone of another race or were gay, I think it is entirely possible that he would have easily stepped into a situation like this and demanded that he be allowed to make the decision. He would never have acknowledged that a person of whom he disapproved had the right to make decisions on his child's behalf. He's just that kind of man.

I would hate to think that my Dad (who, while he is a political abomination it should also be said has his good points) would have been given any legal standing to interfere in my family for any reason. That would go against my family values in the most important ways I can imagine.


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