Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo -- A Computer Malfunction

The life and times of Terri Schiavo is a prime topic of the media and the blogosphere. It's easy to understand why. The moral and ethical questions embodied by her situation have forced most of us to confront issues that we diligently try to avoid at all costs. Yet, because of Schiavo's situation and the court proceedings swirling around her, people are now talking about life and death issues around the family dinner table.

One of the tools I often employ when looking at complex issues is the use of analogy. I frequently find that, if I change the setting or the characters while leaving the basic questions in place, I am able to see the situation with a new set of eyes.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, it would appear to me that her circumstances aren't all that different from a malfunctioning computer*. It seems like a good analogy because those of us who write and read blogs would be lost if our computer[s] decided to go kaput.

Coming at this from the perspective of most doctors who state that there is a zero chance that Schiavo can regain any type of minimal consciousness, we can say that Terri is like a computer with a hard drive crash.

You can turn this computer on. When you do, you'll hear some whirring noises and see a light or two flash or blink. But without an operating system and any type of data stored on the hard drive, what looks like a fully operational computer is not. The monitor virtually is blank and, no matter what you do, it will remain virtually blank.

From this perspective, what's the point in leaving this computer on?

Now, let's approach this situation from the other direction. Let's take the perspective of the Schindler family and the few doctors who say Terri does have minimal consciousness and she may one day POSSIBLY have more. In this case, Terri's hard drive is fine; the problem is her CPU.

With a dysfunctional CPU, you can't even turn the machine on. There may be millions and millions of bytes of data stored on the hard drive, but there's no way to access the data. The computer tower LOOKS to be functional and many of its parts are. You might be able to get a fan to turn on. You can remove some of the components and plug them into other machines and they will work fine. But, despite the fact this computer LOOKS like a functional one, it isn't.

Now imagine we're again talking about a human being, not a computer. Wouldn't you think that living in this state would be sheer purgatory? It would be like the most severe case of Parkinson's Disease. Your mind remains operational, yet you can't communicate, feed yourself, or will your body to make ANY kind of voluntary movement. In such a situation, your body would become a self-imposed prison!

For me, this is what I find most reprehensible about the Schindler's position. Regardless of which of the above viewpoints one accepts, it appears that the Shindlers (along with the rabid Religious Right, the Congress and the President) are projecting their desires on a woman who represents either a brain functional or physiological blank slate.

In other words, because she either can't think, can't communicate to others that she can think or can't convince her own body that she's in control, what Terri Schiavo has become is nothing more than a mirror. The reflection people see when they look at this poor woman is not Terri but themselves. Therefore, regardless of their stated intent, what they say they want for her is nothing more than what they selfishly desire.

[*Note: I just want to say that I KNOW the computer analogy is an imperfect one. For one thing, if a hard drive crashes, there are ways to retrieve some or most of the data. If a CPU fails, one can always replace it. However, our technology regarding the fixing of humans is not as advanced as our technology for fixing computers. For example, we can't simply remove Terri's brain and drop it into a new body.]

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