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March 20, 2006

Americans Idle

Topics: Commentary

By Pamela F. Hennessy
First published at North Country Gazette

It was a year ago that Terri Schiavo's death was made a very public reality in Pinellas County, Florida and was plainly illustrated across the internet, on television sets and in the minds of many around the country who maintained varying opinions of what was the appropriate course of action for the disabled woman.

Since that time, a bevy of columnists and reporters have passionately weighed in on what they perceive to be the egregious wrongs of the case of Terri Schiavo. Between them, it appears that two extremely divorced schools of thought have immerged: that the Congress encroached on a private, family matter and - alternatively - that the state court violated the right to life of a disabled person without her clear consent.

Both camps sit nestled in an overabundance of very generalized talking points, either of which could conceivably make perfect sense to any casual observer. And, people on both sides of the debate have their own personal and oftentimes emotional reasons for taking the stance they take.

Since Terri's death in March of 2005, we've all read too many columns to count proposing that every American should have a living will, carefully outlining the types of care they would refuse themselves, so that they never end up like the unfortunate Terri Schiavo. Advocates of the right-to-die are vigorously promoting legislation that would make it easier for surrogates, guardians, conservators and the courts themselves to remove medically necessary and ordinary care from incapacitated persons without proof of the individual's consent. Since Terri's death, proponents of patient's rights, the right-to-life and the rights of elderly and disabled persons have also been buzzing by promoting things like Protective Medical Decisions Directives, legislation that challenges unfit guardians more aggressively and laws that would presume in favor of ordinarily care in cases where the individual left no clear instructions as to his or her preference.

Sadly, however, it doesn't seem as if the rest of the country seems moved to action.

According to news sources and some right-to-die groups, the number of Americans who possess advanced directives for medical care rests somewhere between 29 and 38%. Smaller still is the number of individuals who have named a trusted surrogate or proxy for healthcare to speak for them should they ever become incapacitated.

Even more depressing is the number of Americans who simply do not know or understand their own state's laws governing the rights to receive healthcare or decline 'unwanted' medical intervention.

Far fewer than these numbers is the number of citizens who actively involve themselves in the legislative process.

Without any scientific study or evidence, I'm rather convinced that most citizens could clearly recite the precise time of day their state allows them to purchase beer on any given day. After all, if you watch football, cook out or cut your grass on the weekend, such a law has a direct impact on you. Relatively few, it seems, know how the state's statutes impact their ability to receive medical treatment or how care can be taken from them. A likely reason is that most people have a difficult time believing they can be changed by tragedy.

The overwhelming lesson of the Terri Schiavo case -- a young, physically strong, healthy, vivacious and sober woman -- should be precisely that: things can change in the blink of an eye.

It may be foolish and even reckless to allow our lawmakers to make these decisions for us without our involvement. Indeed, recent polls have suggested that most Californians do not approve of assisted suicide yet that state's lawmakers are now considering an act that would allow physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to certain patients. Other polls have suggested support for the measure, but the conflict between reports might actually suggest that not all Californians have the pertinent facts. Instead of becoming educated or personally involved in a measure that may serve to target disabled, elderly and poor patients, most Californians have -- predictably -- left the decision to that state's elected body.

Their inactivity is not just sad -- it appears to be the norm.

Those promoting care rationing, assisted suicide, involuntary euthanasia and the removal of ordinary care from individuals without their consent have a monumental head-start on the rest of us. Active for decades as groups promoting 'personal dignity' and 'autonomy' their propaganda train has lost its switchman to the point that they have utterly convinced the general public that unproductive persons now have a 'duty to die'. This does not speak to personal autonomy or dignity but, rather, speaks to the goal of keeping the machine well-oiled and prosperous and at the expense of the human being or our societal obligation to treat one another like persons.

Those on the other side of the debate had better get busy.

Disability rights advocates have long called involuntary euthanasia and assisted suicide blatant targets against their communities. It's time for elder-care advocates to do the same, as well as human rights activists and advocates for the poor. Beyond the involvement of organized humanitarian groups, the individual bears the greatest responsibility.

No group can save your life unless you are willing to take steps, on your own, to get the job done. That means educating yourself, becoming involved and ensuring that you advocate for your own rights to receive wanted care.

After a year of having discussed the Terri Schiavo matter in pubs, coffee houses, in parks and around the water cooler at the office, you would think more people would sense alarm or feel moved to do something to benefit their own well-being.

Until we switch off the sitcoms and start advocating for ourselves, we'll probably remain at the mercy of others. 3-19-06

Posted by pamela at March 20, 2006 2:31 PM

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