The Schiavo ruling may be legal, but it is still wrong


US: A couple of decades back, it was discovered that some over-zealous types in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been surreptitiously burning down the barns of Quebec separatists.

 The prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, shrugged off the controversy and blithely remarked that, if people were so upset by the Mounties illegally burning down barns, perhaps he'd make the burning of barns by Mounties legal. As the columnist George Jonas commented: "It seemed not to occur to him that it isn't wrong to burn down barns because it's illegal, but it's illegal to burn down barns because it's wrong. Like other statist politicians, Mr Trudeau either didn't see, or resented, that right and wrong are only reflected by the laws, not determined by them."

That's how I feel about the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who spent Holy Week being starved to death on the instructions of a Florida court. I'm neither a Floridian nor a lawyer; and, for all I know, it may be legal under Florida law for the state to order her death by starvation. But it is still wrong.

This is not a criminal, not a murderer, not a person whose life should be in the gift of the state. So I find it repulsive, and frankly decadent, to have her continued existence framed in terms of "plaintiffs" and "petitions" and "en banc review" and "de novo" and all the other legalese.

Even given the litigious nature of American society, it still strikes me as remarkable that someone can be literally sued to death - in this case by Mrs Schiavo's husband, who received $750,000 for his wife's medical care plus another $300,000 for "loss of consortium" and then hired a hot-shot lawyer to petition the court to have her life ended.

Terri Schiavo has been in her present condition for 15 years. Whoever she once was, this is who she is now - and, after a decade and a half, there is no compelling reason to kill her. Any legal system with a decent respect for the status quo - something too many American judges are increasingly disdainful of - would recognise that her present life, in all its limitations, is now a well-established fact, and it is the most grotesque judicial over-reaching for any court at this late stage to decide that enough is enough.

It would be one thing had a doctor decided to reach for the morphine and put her out of her misery after a week in her diminished state; after 15 years, for the courts to treat her like a death-row killer who has exhausted her appeals is simply vile.

There seems to be a genuine dispute about her condition - between those on her husband's side, who say she has no consciousness, and those on her parents' side, who say she is capable of basic child-like reactions. If the latter are correct, ending her life is an act of murder. If the former are correct, what difference does it make? If she feels nothing, she has no misery to be put out of. That being so, why not err in favour of the non-irreversible option? The here's-your-shroud crowd say, ah yes, but you uptight conservatives are always boring on about the sanctity of marriage, and this is what her husband wants, and he's legally the next-of-kin.

Michael Schiavo is living in a common-law relationship with another woman, by whom he has fathered children. I make no judgment on that. Who of us can say how we would react in his circumstances? Maybe I'd pull my hat down over my face and slink off to the cathouse on the other side of town once a week. Maybe I'd embark on a discreet companionship with a lonely widow. But if I take on a new wife (in all but name) and make a new family, I would think it not unreasonable to forfeit any right of life or death over my previous wife.

As for the worthlessness of Terri Schiavo's existence, some years back I was discussing the death of a distinguished songwriter with one of his colleagues. My then girlfriend, in her mid-20s, was anxious to head for dinner and said airily: "Oh, well, he had a good life. He was 87." "That's easy for you to say," said his old pal. "I'm 86." To say nobody would want to live in an iron lung or in a wheelchair or a neck brace or with third-degree burns over 80 per cent of his body is likewise easy for you to say.

We all have friends who are passionate about some activity - they say that they love to ski, or dance, or play the cello. Then something happens and they can't. The ones I've known fall into two broad camps: there are those who give up and consider what's left of their lives a waste of time; and there are those who say they've learned to appreciate simple pleasures, like the morning sun through the spring blossom dappling their room each day. Most of us roll our eyes and think "What a loser, mooning on about the blossom. He used to be a Hollywood vice-president, for Pete's sake."

But that's easy for us to say. For all the way everyone trumpets the virtues of "living wills", which explain our wishes in the event of a crippling disability, we can't know which camp we'd fall into until it happens to us. And it behoves us to maintain a certain modesty about presuming to speak for others - even those we know well. Example: "Driving down there, I remember distinctly thinking that Chris would rather not live than be in this condition." That's Barbara Johnson recalling the 1995 accident of her son, Christopher "Superman" Reeve. Her instinct was to pull the plug; his was to live.

Critics have characterised Republicans' efforts to pass a federal law to save Terri Schiavo's life as Congressional over-reaching and an abuse of states' rights. But which is more likely? That Congress will use this precedent to pass bills keeping you - yes, you, Joe Schmoe of 37 Elm Street - alive till your 118th birthday? Or that the various third parties who intrude between patient and doctor in the American system - next-of-kin, medical insurers, life insurers - will see the Schiavo case as an important benchmark in what's already a drift towards a culture of convenience euthanasia?

Here's a thought: where do you go to get a living-will kit saying that, in the event of a hideous accident, you don't want to be put to death by a Florida judge or the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals? And, if you had such a living will, would any US court recognise it?