Thursday, October 30, 2003

The living dead

One of the differences between here and the States is illuminated very sharply by the case of Tom Hurndall, shot by the Israeli Defence Force while rescuing a child and now in PVS. As this article tells us, his doctors have asked the courts for permission to switch off his life support. It is not thought he will recover.

There is no outcry here over this, even though his parents oppose the move. In the UK, the doctors decide, and this is right, I feel, because they do so for the right reasons. They say his quality of life is so low that it is not just to keep him alive.

This can be contrasted with the Terri Schiavo case in Florida, where a woman in a similar state is being used as a political football. She is portrayed by the right as a disabled woman whose husband wants to starve her to death. Her family have distributed videos of her smiling, groaning and what they describe as laughing (although if your dog made the noise Ms Schiavo makes, you'd shoot it). All of these symptoms are common in PVS, but are not directed. They are no more signs of life than a belch is a sign of thought.

We do not have an honest relationship with death. We do not accept it as part of what is. We allow our fear to have us believe that life should be maintained no matter what it consists in.

In both these cases, the person is dead. The body, a useless shell, might live for decades (although usually a body in PVS dies within five years) but Terri Schiavo and Tom Hurndall will never come home. Our compassion for their parents – and we feel it, those of us who are parents ourselves because we can only imagine how painful it must be to see your child's face, alive, smiling even, and know that they are not there – should not overwhelm that which we have for them.


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