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Discussion 1 to Reflections on Ethics 38
On the Death of Terri Schaivo

by Wilfred C. Lyon

The following was originally a Letter to the Editor, Greenville News.

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We don’t always hold human tissue as sacred.  The Catholic church once held this view and then abandoned it in light of more modern science.  We now take out tonsils, adenoids, appendices, cancers, tumors, eye lenses, even hearts and lungs, and other parts and no longer hold them as sacred.  But when the organism becomes more whole, we begin to look at this as different.  Fetuses, Terri Schaivo and other brain dead start to become shades of grey to most of us.  To some Terri Schaivo was clearly something not to be tampered with.  She was a complete living organism, albeit not functioning at the level of self-sustaining.  Our humanity says that we need to protect those who are not able to sustain themselves.  After all we were all babies once and depended on someone to give us sustenance.  Most have been sick enough to need sustaining care at sometime in their lives.  This begs for an answer as to what “living human being” means. 

There are still a few who hold all human life sacred, every egg should be fertilized, every sperm should find an egg.  Of course there are easily found flaws in this, there simply more sperms than eggs, and it subjugates the rest of life to a dependent status as care taker first.  Most have long ago abandoned this.  I suppose that somewhere there is a misanthrope who would hold no human life as anything more than a chemical function of finding “free energy” and using it to propagate the DNA.  Humanity falls in between in the shades of grey. 

For me, the thing that separates human life from other life is not simply the DNA.  We are sentient beings and I think that that is what separates us into “humanity.”.  I grew up in farming country and cattle of several kinds, but I was most taken with cows.  To some these are unintelligent beasts simply here to provide meat and for some of the more sentient of us, we know that they provide the milk that we buy in stores.  To me, however, they are more.  I saw how protective they were of their calves, they “culture” that they established in leaders, followers, ones who strayed and acted on their own.  We had only a limited pasturage, barn space, fields to provide hay for winter, and storage space for that hay.  It was all worked out to a certain number of cows.  Each year we would get new calves, and in the fall that meant culling the herd.  Clearly the herd, knew and felt the lose of those loved ones.  Yes, I said and meant “loved ones.”  This feeling of some emotional bond extended beyond their own kind.  I recall several spring times after the snow would melt and the cows were returned to the pasturage.  They would eat their fill of grasses in the mornings and when the warm spring sun would make us all lazy and drunk with the elation that the winter had ended and life was springing forth again, they would lie down and chew their cuds.  We would lie down next to them and lean back on them and soak in the warmth of the sun that warmed their dark hides.  They could have stood and moved, swatted us with their tails, or swung their heads around to menace us, they did not. They clearly enjoyed our affection and warmth as much as we did theirs.  These are sentient beings.  I can write similar of lowly rabbits that I kept and raised because my daughter wanted them.  They had a sentience, too.  I do not think that it was as highly developed as the cows.  That may be my ignorance or prejudice, or fact.  But, to me, animals clearly have sentience. 

So how is this sentience different and why are they not humans?  I take one of the early thinkers, Socrates, with who I agree, as my source.  Socrates talked of the concept of “soul.”  He did not write on the subject that we know of, all of his thoughts and expositions were preserved by his students, mainly Aristotle and Xenophon, who did write them down for us.  Lest my friends think that I am becoming something other than my very atheist self, let me explain that the concept of soul as exposed by Socrates was a concept different.  It was not the religious corruption of it as a semi-concrete something or other that is somehow made at conception or is passed through and possess living matter on its way to some afterlife.  No, Socrates, I believe, was trying to see that which separated human sentience from mere animal sentience.  Just as Rèné Descartes declared, “Je ponce, donc je suis”, or, “Cogito, ergo sum”, Socrates was looking for that sentience that separates us for the other living beings.  We have an ability to think beyond simple reasoning.  Anthropologist look for this difference, too.  Once they thought that tool making separated us.  But now we know thot our closest DNA relatives, the Chimps, also make tools.  My anthropologist teachers said that it was the ability to freely make and use symbols.  Now we have a gorilla that has learned the American sign language and can express herself, clearly showing thoughts and the ability to “symbol” beyond mere sentience.  Leslie White, my most famous anthropology teacher, said that the differences could be measure and provided data on the use of “free energy” as the way to separate man from beast and culture from culture.  Perhaps this is still a good measure, but somehow falls short of the sense of “feeling” that we have in our sentience, that to me makes us human.  We are qualitatively different from the other living forms as well as quantitatively different. 

When we lose this difference, we lose our humanity with it.  It is the level of sentience that makes us human.  Terri Schaivo died fourteen years ago.  I can understand the feelings of her parents.  I am a parent.  I want for my children.  But, I have learned that I must give them their own lives separate from what I want for them.  Terri would never give her parents or siblings, grand children, nieces or nephews, would never give anything human again.  Her parents and siblings could want those things, wish for them to be, and could, and did, show their love by trying to preserve their wishes for her.  Alas, Terri could not.  According to the records, and the court system apparently reviewed them to ad nausea, Terri expressed her wish not to be kept “alive” in the sense of consuming free-energy to keep her system going.  She had expressed a Socratean sense of her soul as being her sentience and when that was gone, so was the “she” that she wished to preserve, not the body, but the soul.  I am sympathetic for her husband.  He apparently loved her enough to honor her wishes and set her free, her soul had long gone, but her body remained.  I am saddened that the conflict over Terri’s life shattered and separated hem from his in-laws and Terri’s genetic family from him. 

I know that religionists, particularly some Christians, have seized on this and made it a crusade.  They wish to decide the issues of life for all of us.  They have the “ANSWER” in absolutes and we mere mortals do not have choices.  They play God because they somehow “KNOW” what we do not.  For them life is still in the beating heart, the greening of a leaf, the capture and use of free-energy to sustain.  To be consistent they should, to err on the side of “life” as George W. Bush said, be like the Jains and hold all life sacred.  For some of us, life is not so simple.  There is no “universal soul” or what ever spirit or non-living being.  Our life is what we choose it to be, by our sentience, by our choices and their consequences, by being who we are.  To us, humanity is more important than life itself. 

My life is in my brain, not in my physical heart.  Science has gotten beyond the concept of sentience being in the heart.  The heart sustains the body and the mind or Socratean “soul”, but the mind does not sustain the heart.  It will function on its own through a synapse.  I have a written will, which states that, if ever, I am in a vegetative state, I do not wish to be sustained in body only.  To me my life is in my sentience, my soul is in my being able to think, sense, feel, that is what being alive is to me.  I hope that my wishes will be respected when I am no longer able to enforce them myself.  I wish it to be simple and not played out before a television audience world wide, that I not be made a spectacle of nor that my being be so humiliated.