Whose Life Is Worth Living?
It wasn’t that many years ago when I happened
to be in Raleigh at a gathering of literary folk who were quite
full of their own superiority. They started talking about people
who (gasp!) let years go by without reading a single book.
“Why do they even bother being alive?”
asked one of them. Almost everyone laughed.
They went on and on about the worthlessness of
the lives of non-intellectuals. Shopping in malls. Eating at McDonald’s.
Driving their gas-guzzling cars.
I did ask where they shopped, and which of them
had arrived at the party by balloon. I have not been invited to
such gatherings since.
It’s so easy to decide that someone else’s
life is not worth living. Lacking something that we regard as
essential, we cannot fathom how they get through a day.
The nattering of intellectuals about the valuelessness
of the “unexamined life” might be taken as hyperbole,
if it weren’t for the fact that it is precisely our intellectual
elite that has decided to set itself up as champions of the right
to murder people “for their own good.”
We saw how intellectuals treat the issue in this
year’s Oscar-winning deathwish movie, Million Dollar Baby.
By now everyone knows that at the end, Hilary Swank lies in a
bed, paralyzed from the neck down. Because of bedsores, one leg
So, in despair, she begs Clint Eastwood to kill
And when he won’t, she tries to kill herself
by biting off her own tongue.
At last he succumbs, becomes a murderer for her
sake, and walks away as the audience weeps at the nobility of
Hardly. Just think — now he won’t
have to visit her every day in the hospital. No more time spent
trying to talk her into staying alive.
Let’s see ...
What was her character suffering that Christopher
Reeve didn’t suffer?
How dare I make such a comparison! Christopher
Reeve didn’t ask people to kill him. He was a different
person and made a different choice!
No, he wasn’t merely a different person.
The difference is that he was a person, and she
Hillary Swank’s character was made up. She
did what the author decided she should do. So after we see her
grimly determined to overcome all obstacles, unwilling to be discouraged,
adapting to whatever circumstances try to thwart her, suddenly
the author decides that this time she’ll give up and start
demanding that the people who love her most surrender their sense
of decency and goodness in order to indulge her despair.
Do you think Christopher Reeve didn’t feel
despair? He said so, in various interviews; there were even times
he wished he were dead; but the love and encouragement of his
family and friends gave him new purpose.
Plus, there’s that little thing called “adaptation.”
People get used to things.
In one experiment, people were fitted with lenses
that turned everything upside down while shutting out any view
of the right-side-up world.
In a surprisingly short time, their brains did
a flip-flop and turned the upside-down-image right side up again.
In concentration camps, some people do indeed
despair. It’s a well-known phenomenon: They turn their faces
to the wall and take no interest in the world around them until
they die — often very quickly.
Unloved, untouched babies also wither, losing
brain function, becoming engulfed by lethargy, and sometimes simply
But most people, given anything to hold on to,
adapt and try. They find new purpose. They find work-arounds.
The quadriplegics who learn to paint with a brush
held between their teeth.
I suppose, though, that we should have simply
killed them as soon as the incurability of their problems became
obvious. After all, what “quality of life” could they
People make their own quality of life. There are
people who are desperately unhappy in the midst of freedom and
plenty, and people who are quite cheerful despite devastating
deprivation and loss.
My wife was once at a gathering of church women,
when one of them started complaining about how desperately hard
it was to choose just the right dining room set for her new home.
She seemed genuinely distressed. And the other
ladies commiserated. But my wife knew that one of the women was
suffering through the breakup of her marriage, and another was
worried because her husband was probably going to be laid off.
Every one of them had problems that made choosing a dining room
set almost laughably trivial.
But to that one woman, the dining room problem
was the worst thing in her life. It’s as if she had a certain
amount of misery she was determined to feel, and settled on whatever
came to hand to be miserable about.
While other women in that same room turned their
problems and suffering outward, and took their mind off their
problems by either working to overcome them or, if they were insuperable,
simply doing whatever was within their power to make the people
around them a little happier.
The result was that they were happier themselves.
So whose quality of life was better?
Whose life was more worth living?
Nobody would suggest euthanizing a person because
she’s suffering so terribly about choosing a table and chairs.
No, we’re still slightly careful about whom
we can kill and then feel noble about it.
For instance, we now live in a country where you
can kill your wife, as long as she’s tragically brain-damaged,
lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak.
She does open her eyes, though. And she can track
objects that move across her field of vision. She isn’t
in a coma.
She even has people who want to take care of her.
Her parents, her siblings.
And pay no attention to the “experts”
who say that these apparent signs of intelligent life aren’t
real. We once had an “expert” make the same sort of
declaration about our son Charlie, after a mere half hour of observation,
completely discounting the experience of Charlie’s parents
and other caretakers who knew perfectly well that he really communicated
The expert’s assumption was that anything
seen through the eyes of people who loved Charlie was to be discounted
completely. Ironically, though, it is precisely the people whose
attention is concentrated by love who are best equipped to judge
whether communication is happening — since it is happening
The people who love Terri Schiavo apparently do
not include her husband, who seems awfully impatient to get rid
And under our bizarre laws, he has the only vote,
and her parents and brothers and sisters are completely disregarded.
What is the husband’s case for killing her?
It couldn’t possibly be because he wants
to be able to marry the woman he’s living with now. After
all, to accomplish that he need only divorce the brain-damaged
woman in a hospital bed.
Oh, but wait. If he divorces her, then he won’t
get as much of that million-dollar settlement that’s paying
for her care right now. Only if she dies will he get any of that.
No, his motive is completely noble and unselfish.
He wants to shut off her feeding tube because she “wouldn’t
have wanted to live like this.”
Hmmmm. Convenient that she can’t speak,
The incredible thing — to me, at least,
and yet I have to believe it, don’t I — is that he
was able to find a judge who would give him the right to kill
Despite the fact that she has loved ones who are
desperate to keep her alive and take responsibility for her care.
Despite the fact that the husband’s motives are suspect
at best. Somehow, judges in Florida keep finding a “right
to kill” hidden somewhere in the law.
Well, we have a precedent for that, don’t
we. When it comes to legalized killing, our judges are way ahead
of our legislatures ...
Once you plunge out onto that slippery slope of
allowing the killing of another human organism for no better reason
than personal convenience, it’s so hard to find a handhold
to let you climb back up.
Yet it’s the proponents of legalized killing
who whine about the “slippery slope.”
Are there times when it is justified to take a
I believe so — and so do most people. Self-defense,
defense of the helpless and innocent, aborting a baby to save
the life of the mother; there’s almost always a trade-off,
choosing one life over another.
In fact, under traditional law, there is more
of a case for killing Terry Schiavo’s husband in order to
save her from him than there is for killing the brain-damaged
woman in the first place.
Whenever somebody wants to kill someone else,
he will find excuses to justify the act. Most often, he will claim
that his would-be victim is “not really human,” not
It is precisely because of this human tendency
that a decent society must go to extra effort, must draw the line
firmly at a much earlier point, in order to prevent the killing
of innocents. Especially those who are utterly incapable of speaking
Inability to plead for your life should not be
sufficient grounds for killing you.
If this woman can be murdered, with the active
help of the courts that granted permission and blocked legislators
from changing the law, then who is safe?
I suppose that my son Charlie Ben, who spoke very
few words in his life and could not sit or stand or feed himself
for all seventeen of his years — I suppose that under this
new system of killing “for their own good,” I, as
his parent, could have decided to stop feeding him and let him
But no. Isn’t this odd? Just because we
were able to use a spoon and a tippy-cup to get food into his
body, it would have been criminal negligence and I would have
been convicted — rightly — of murder.
Fortunately, such an act never crossed my mind
during his lifetime, and, if it had, would have been met with
shame and loathing. So he had all seventeen of the years his body
gave him. He was often happy, but sometimes sad and frustrated.
He was cut off from certain kinds of relationships, yet he managed
to bring joy and understanding to many people whose lives he touched.
Most emphatically, it was a life worth living.
And this poor woman — even if the only thing
she can “do” is receive the loving service of her
family, who is to say that this is not sufficient reason for her
life to continue?
Even if her survival is only a testament to the
importance of life in our society, is that not a good reason for
her to stay alive?
We cannot get inside the head of someone else
even when they can speak. So to take the life of someone based
on speculation about what they “would have wanted”
is arrogant at best, monstrous at worst.
So what if she might have said at one time, “I
wouldn’t want to live like that”? She was only speculating
herself at that time, guessing at how she would feel.
How many times have you ever said, “If that
ever happens to me, then I hope you’ll just kill me”?
Even people suffering from such dark depression
that they say they want to die — who is to say that at some
later time they might have a completely different desire? But
once they’re dead, they can’t change their mind.
We can’t prevent death indefinitely —
it comes to everyone in the end. Sometimes it comes to those who
are tragically young, as a murderer steals them from their beds,
or a tsunami sweeps them out of their homes, or some enemy hacks
them to death because they’re of the wrong tribe ... terrible
But when we can preserve a life, how dare we not
do our best to do so?
Not just for the sake of that particular life,
but for the sake of all the others who will be murdered once we
open the floodgates and allow selfish people to kill those helpless
ones who inconvenience them.
Once we accept the premise that it’s permissible
— or even noble — to kill the helpless, then where
do we draw the line?
If a civilization ceases protecting the weak and
innocent from the strong and selfish, then what, precisely, is
Imagine a woman who had an abortion but also had
a couple of children who lived. What would we think of her if
she ever said — or thought — “I only wish I’d
aborted the others”?
We know exactly what we think of people who murder
children — their own or other people’s.
How is Terry Schiavo not eligible for the special
protection we give to children? Just because it’s an injury
that makes her as helpless as a newborn; just because she doesn’t
seem to have the potential of “growing out of it”;
how dare we let her be murdered — and call ourselves civilized?
And if the judiciary actively conspires in the
murder of such innocents, who will protect them then?
There are people whose lives are not worth living
— or at least do not justify to society at large the trouble
of keeping them alive. The murderers and torturers and ravishers
of children, for instance — to protect innocents from them,
a decent society might well choose to save all their future victims
by killing the conscienceless perpetrator.
Yet because life is so precious, decent people
are loath to use the death penalty, because it’s possible
for the prosecutors to be wrong. Better to keep a thousand perpetrators
of evil alive than to suffer one to be executed innocently.
But those who have harmed no one, whose only offense
is to remain alive while being helpless, we can kill them.
We have forgotten how to be appropriately outraged.
We can see people frothing at the mouth both for and against a
promiscuous President, we can see people furious that others eat
meat or wear fur or drill for oil in frozen wastelands —
but starve a lone and helpless woman in the hospital, and ...
where is the rage at such a wrong?
We talk about how terrible it is, and then shrug
and say, “But what can I do?”
Why do we let the hypothetical trump the real?
We do it with our current abortion law: In order
to save hypothetical women who might die from illegal back-alley
abortions, we allow the killing of millions of separate human
organisms for no better reason than their erstwhile parents’
Likewise, because Terry Schiavo might hypothetically
prefer death to her current state, we seem poised to allow the
very real woman to be starved to death despite the desperate concern
of her family who want her to be kept alive.
It is death that trumps life in this twisted,
sick, upside down version of America we live in now.
Thus evil wins over and corrupts a whole society,
because by our silence or inaction, our selfishness or laziness,
we conspire in the slaughter of the innocents.
What is our quality of life, as a civilization,
when this is what we tolerate?
Miss Liberty’s promise is false after all.
Send us no more “huddled masses yearning to breathe.”
There is no such right in our country anymore, and no one left
to protect it.
We have nothing to teach the world if we let this
murder be carried out before our eyes, with the consent of our
If only Terry Schiavo had been convicted of some
crime. Then the governor could stay her execution.
If she starves to death, something dies in all
of us; and not a small thing, either, unless we have made it small
by our lack of compassion for the helpless.
Let’s act on an old slogan that promotes
life: “Love conquers all.”
It is not love of any kind that arrogantly says,
“Better to be dead than live like that.”
My answer is, Better to be stupid than to be so
“smart” you think you have the right to judge innocent
lives as not worth living, just because you wouldn’t wish
to live it yourself.
Scott Card is a columnist for the Rhinoceros
Times in Greensboro, NC. and the proprietor of the web site
The Ornery American.
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