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Pro-lifers link euthanasia to abortion

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 10, 2003

The heartbreaking story of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman who has been kept alive for more than a decade by a feeding tube her husband claims she would want removed, has captured the media's attention.

The significance of the Schiavo story, however, is not just her dramatic circumstances, but the ethical questions that surround the debate over using heroic measures to keep a brain-damaged/brain-dead person alive when that person has not left clear instructions.

The debate is necessary, but a thread running throughout is counterproductive: Namely, the linking of euthanasia to abortion by prominent voices in the pro-life movement.

Abortion is the deliberate termination of a pregnancy which generally occurs through one of three methods: 1) "morning-after pills" prevent implantation of a fertilized egg; 2) drugs such as RU-486 or mifepristone cause spontaneous abortions during early stages; and, 3) surgery removes a developing fetus from the womb.

The strongest argument against abortion is that an innocent, unconsenting human being is murdered by a medical procedure.

Euthanasia is the putting to death of a terminally ill or severely debilitated person either through omission (e.g. the intentional withholding of assistance, known as "passive euthanasia") or through commission (e.g. assisted suicide, known as "active euthanasia").

Consent is key. Ideally, if the person is unable to communicate, consent derives from prior-expressed wishes or from a guardian's knowledge and authority. If the person can communicate and says "no," then the "assisted death" ceases to be euthanasia and becomes murder.

Unlike abortion, where the woman is making a choice about her fetus, with euthanasia, the only person being harmed is the person consenting to die.

Whether or not Terri Schiavo's possible death can be accurately called euthanasia, that is how it is being portrayed. And any resulting laws are likely to impact how our society approaches that issue. More broadly stated, the laws may impact the right of every human being to determine their own medical destiny, including death with dignity.

Pro-life advocates have an opportunity. For decades, the pro-choice side of the abortion debate has accused pro-lifers of trying to wrench away a woman's control of her own body. Through the issue of euthanasia, pro-lifers can reassure every woman that they respect the moral jurisdiction she has over her own life by defending her right to choose when that choice affects only her own body.

Instead, the opposite is occurring.

Like many in the media, I have been flooded by e-mail from pro-lifers who consider Schiavo's fate -- always identified as "euthanasia" -- to be inextricably connected to abortion. Somewhere along the line, the argument that people should determine their own medical destiny is interpreted to be a bloodthirsty cry to murder others.

Why does the pro-life movement link abortion to euthanasia?

The abortion/euthanasia connection seems to rest on two contentions. First, both are morally wrong. Second, both are integral to the ongoing debate over "what is life."

The first connection, even if true, is too general to forge a meaningful link. For example, drunk driving and embezzlement are both morally wrong but they cannot be coupled in any meaningful way to abortion.

The second connection is more on point: When a person cannot communicate -- perhaps because they are "brain dead" -- the question of "what is life" arises. The hideous possibility of killing an unconsenting, innocent human is present. But such a possibility is not at the core of why many pro-lifers oppose euthanasia. If it were, they would not oppose mercy killing in cases where the person actively requests assistance in dying.

The core idea seems to be "the sanctity of life." In other words, it is wrong to take a life, even your own, for any reason. This raises the key political issue: Do people have the right to control their own bodies and decide on the sanctity of their life or death for themselves? I say "yes."

Hard cases make bad law and the Terry Schiavo case is a quagmire of unknowns and conflicting motives.

Traditionally, the medical fate of someone like Schiavo -- unable to communicate for over a decade -- would be determined by attending doctors and the legal guardian. In the presence of a dispute, the courts would rule. In Schiavo's case, the court did rule: Terri's feeding tube was removed at her husband's request -- a request he claims fulfills her previously stated desire.

The "solution" that many pro-lifers have wildly applauded is state intervention. The hastily written "Terri's Law" allowed Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to use the Legislature to overturn a court ruling, medical advice and a guardian's decision. Terri's Law will be challenged as a clear violation of both state and federal guarantees of the separation of powers: that is, the idea that one branch of government (the legislature) does not have the right to overturn the rulings of another branch (the judiciary), especially without standards or review.

There is a less obvious fall-out to Terri's Law. Many pro-choice advocates like me have been slowly moving toward the pro-life position. ("Partial-birth" abortion is a moral abomination that has prevented me from speaking out on abortion rights for years.) But, in not confronting pro-life arguments, am I sanctioning the state's "right" to control a woman's medical decisions?

Now is the time for pro-lifers to clearly state that, in the absence of a fetus, it is a person's body, a person's right.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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