“Cast Me Not Off in Old Age”
Death and dying are once again subjects of intense public attention. During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts was grilled about his views on removing life-sustaining treatments from debilitated patients and warned by various liberal Senators not to interfere with the “right to die.” In California and Vermont, state legislators are working to legalize assisted suicide, while the Bush administration is trying to restrict the practice by prohibiting doctors from using federally-controlled narcotics to end their patients’ lives. All this comes in the aftermath of the bitter fight over Terri Schiavo, a profoundly disabled woman whose husband removed the feeding tube that kept her alive, but only after years of legal battles with Schiavo’s parents and myriad political efforts to stop him.
The Schiavo case revealed deep divisions in how Americans view debility and death. Some saw pulling her feeding tube as an act of mercy, others as an act of murder. Some believed she possessed equal human dignity and deserved equal care despite her total lack of self-awareness; others believed keeping her alive year after year was itself an indignity. For many, what mattered most was discerning “what Terri would have wanted”; for many others, what mattered was loving the needy woman on the television screen, not abandoning her when the burdens of care seemed too great.
About the Author
Leon R. Kass, the Hertog fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, served from 2001 through 2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In somewhat different form, this essay will appear in a volume on religion and the American future to be published later this year by the American Enterprise Institute.