Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo's Freedom Of Religion

I am relieved to see that the U.S. District Court was unimpressed with Congressional grandstanding in the Schiavo case. But I found something unexpectedly chilling in the arguments presented by the Schindlers' lawyer. Among the expected due process claims was the argument that Schiavo's rights to the free exercise of religion were being trampled:
Gibbs said that "fairly dramatic developments," including a statement by Pope John Paul II that removing a feeding tube would be a sin except in rare instances, are proof that Schiavo's constitutional rights to freely practice her religion are being infringed upon. Refusing to resume her tube-feeding would "jeopardize her eternal soul," Gibbs said.
Law professor Ann Althouse paraphrases the argument succinctly:
The federal religion claims assume that she must now want what the doctrine of the Catholic church requires, because, when she was able to think about such things, she was a Catholic.
The Schindler family is arguing that, regardless of what has been determined in court about Terri Schiavo's actual wishes, the courts should be required to place a higher weight on what the Catholic Church wants her to have wished. If the Appellate Court agrees with them, it sets up an enormously disturbing precedent in which religious doctrine is presumed to trump individual conscience.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. Catholics have Living Wills - would they be rendered legally invalid if they include provisions to refuse artificial nutrition? What about cases in which a Catholic minor seeks judicial bypass to obtain an abortion without parental consent? Would the judge be required to take the Catholic Church's position into account, if it is indeed a violation of religious freedom to allow someone to make a choice which "jeopardize[s] her eternal soul?" It's hard to imagine anything so theocratic happening in the United States, and yet the argument is being made, in federal court, that the Vatican's opinions should be allowed to intrude upon personal family decisions.

Needless to say, the proposition that "she must now want what the doctrine of the Catholic church requires" is entirely specious. American Catholics widely disagree with the church on a broad number of social positions, including the use of artificial contraception (90% believe that it is acceptable, and as of 1988 59% of all Catholic women of childbearing age were using methods of birth control other than periodic abstinence), abortion (31% of U.S. women seeking abortions are Catholic), the death penalty (48% support it), and - as a matter of fact - the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube (pdf). The last link is to a recent ABC news poll which found that 63% of American Catholics supported removing the feeding tube. So much for the Schindler's argument that, because Schiavo is Catholic, the court is required to determine that her wishes are identical to the Pope's.