When Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed in 2005 because her husband was able to convince a judge that she was a “vegetable” and wouldn’t want to “live that way,” I thought human beings had sunk as low as we could on the evolutionary scale of morality. Here was a man who had moved on with his life — he was in a new relationship and had fathered children — but who refused to give up the right to exert God-like dominion over his ailing wife, even though her parents and brother were desperate to take her home with them and care for her until the natural end of her days.
Michael Schiavo never fully explained why he wouldn’t surrender his legal rights of guardianship, although it seemed that part of the motivation was an absolute disgust for his former in-laws.
No one knew what Terri’s wishes were, and she was unable to express them in her reduced state, so the law gave her husband the right to put words in her mouth and take the breath from her body. I remember thinking at the time that we had turned a corner in our conception of dignity and bodily integrity. Roe v. Wade was bad enough, but this was an abdication, an erasure even, of our essential humanity. A man who had moved on with another woman refused to surrender his legal right to exercise veto power over the life of the first woman he married.
It was medieval. The phrase human chattel came to mind.
Twelve years later, I have seen something worse, a battle waged over the body of a tiny child who cannot hear or speak or perhaps even see, but who lives, breathes and carries with him the hopes of his parents. Those hopes have been dashed, and now Chris Gard and Connie Yates are reduced to fighting to bring their son home to die.
The thing that makes Charlie Gard’s case more bitter to swallow than Schiavo’s is that she had two groups of people who, though at odds, loved the person whose life was at issue. Michael Schiavo said he wanted to honor the wishes of his wife. Her parents and brothers, the Schindlers, wanted to make whatever residue of life that pulsed within her to have meaning. They wanted to take her home, care for her, feed her, hold her, speak to her, sing her familiar songs, read her verses that might spark distant memories, and simply love her until they lifted her into God’s arms. Both sides loved, with a personal element that redeemed in some important way the pain.
In the case of Charlie Gard, the battle has been between heroic parents who have centered their very existence on the welfare of their baby and have turned their love into a grassroots crusade against nihilism. The opponent is not a person with equally passionate feelings, but an administrative monolith that casts its long shadow over a tiny child and neutralizes the natural rights of his desperate parents. Some suggest that the British government’s refusal to allow Baby Charlie to leave the country and seek experimental treatment in the United States was an exercise in compassion. They point to cases where the state steps in between a child and an abusive parent, and acts as a buffer against that harm.
This offends me. By stepping in to decide Charlie’s fate, the state stripped these parents of their rights. The objective, cold, and coin-counting “village” that was touted by Hillary Clinton so many years ago took possession of this child, probably thinking it was doing the right thing.
Instead, it has destroyed this tiny life, and has closed the door for other lives that will follow.
I know others won’t see this case as black and white. But I know one thing, and it is as uncomplicated as the fact that darkness is canceled by the light:
Governments have no right to stand between a mother’s empty arms and the child she wants, even for a few final moments, to hold.
Christine Flowers, an immigration lawyer, can be heard Sundays at 8 p.m. on WPHT-AM (1210). email@example.com