Monday, March 21, 2005

“The only important things in life are linguistics and sex.”

The Movie: Sherman’s March, 1986 (documentary; Ross McElwee, dir.)
Who says it: Winnie, a linguistics post-graduate student living alone on a Georgia barrier island
The context: Winnie is brushing off the filmmaker’s advances, and explaining her affair with a linguistics professor.
How to use it: To mock your own priorities.

How spoiled do you have to be, to be able to say this line with a straight face? And yet I can't slam it, because I've said similar things in my own time (not about linguistics and sex, I don't think, but who knows).

But this is the "quality of life" issue someone mentioned -- and yes, this is the Terri Schiavo rant I didn't have time for yesterday. Quality of life doesn't get much worse than slow starvation. Quality of life doesn't get any worse than death. Not much room for improvement when you're dead (although if you believe in cryogenics, you can hedge your bets).

The argument that Mrs. Schiavo has no cognitive abilities cuts both ways. If that is true, she has no memory of her past life; she is not capable of grieving for it, or feeling frustrated or trapped. She is a creature of sensation -- but a human creature, who is loved.

And as a creature of sensation, her quality of life is pretty high, or at least it was before they removed the feeding tube. With the feeding tube, she was well-nourished, clean, dry, sheltered, safe, and cared for -- and thus, had a quality of life far above a large percentage of the world's. Twenty-five percent of the world's population has no access to electricity. Approximately one billion people can't be sure of getting enough to eat every day. I don't even know what percentage of the earth lives without adequate shelter.

Okay, then, as my friend Tom said yesterday, that begs the question of why Terri Schiavo should live. Why should she take up these scarce and valuable resources when she is no longer functioning as a member of society, when she's no longer making any kind of contribution?

This argument is a dangerous slope. Who gets to say who's not making a contribution? Terri Schiavo's parents believe she's making a contribution to their lives. Anyone who's cared for someone with a serious illness or disability knows that it teaches and tests you, and leaves you profoundly changed -- for better, as well as for worse.

But the answer to Tom's question about why Terri Schiavo should get to live is irrational and absolute: because living's what we do. Life is the absolute good, the only one. Everything organic in the universe strains toward life, everything lives as long as it possibly can. Nothing goes quietly, not even the simplest one-celled organisms. Life is our imperative and our addiction.

Life offers the possibility -- the certainty, actually -- of change. Of hope. My goddaughter Siobhan and her sister Erin, two beautiful autistic girls, have made dazzling progress that wouldn't even have been imaginable, much less available to them, ten years ago. Their quality of life is enviable, and will only get better.

The only important thing in life is life itself. After death, nothing changes any more.

4 comments:

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

You make a beautiful and impassioned argument, Clair, but again, I just don't know if in my heart I agree. The part I certainly agree with most is that danger of a slippery slope--that if one were to make an exception to laws and principles, it would be hard to stop.

And yet I still find this one particular issue excruciatingly difficult, one of those worst-case and unthinkable scenarios that challenge one's deepest feelings. I can agree with most of what you say, and still come to a slightly different conclusion about what action to take. I'm not a strong advocate of ending her feeding, but I am also sympathetic to many of the arguments for stopping.

And I'm adamanently opposed to congress interfering.

AnswerGirl said...

Life support is one thing; feeding's something else. You'd feed a hamster, for heaven's sake. At least, YOU feed guinea pigs, and I would not allow rodents to live in my house.

And I think federalism breaks down in the face of something that's as wrong as this. We allow the Supreme Court to intervene in death penalty cases. How is this different?

Of course, I'm opposed to the death penalty, too, but that's another rant for another day.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

By the way--dropping the main thread here--Sherman's March? Bravo. And you chuckle at my referring to the poetry of William Bronk. Is this lovely movie even on imdb?

AnswerGirl said...

Not only is it on IMDb, it's on DVD! I own it on VHS, which is kind of pointless since I haven't owned a VCR in a couple of years... all those tapes fit nicely next to the LPs I haven't listened to in a decade.