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A Solomonic decision

Any of a number of judges could have kept the Terri Schiavo case from becoming so complex

Issue: "Schiavo’s fight for life," April 2, 2005

"Please, Lord," I groused plaintively last week as I stood a few yards from where Terri Schiavo lay dying because a gaggle of public officials had decided her life was not worth living. "Please don't let one more person tell me how 'complex' this whole case has become."

If I heard the "complexity" response once, I think I heard it a hundred times. Worst of all, I probably even thought it a few times myself.

But the Terri Schiavo case is "complex" only in the sense that any of our sinful behavior is complicated. Sometimes, it is true, we weave such contorted patterns that solutions seem hard to find. That's precisely when we ought to look for God's simpler answers.

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There is nothing complex about a situation like this: Party A is desperately needy. Party B, the normal provider of Party A's needs, says he doesn't want to do so. Party C, however, is more than ready to step in and provide what Party B says he doesn't want to give. Doesn't seem so hard, does it?

The situation gets complicated only when an extraneous Party D steps in to say that Party C can't, by law, extend such a merciful hand. And Party D in this case, of course, turns out to be those same activist judges who have stood half of American society on its head in recent years.

Just think how simple all this might have been if it had not become the American habit to try to remedy every inconvenience in life with a trip to the courthouse. Set aside the worst things you've heard about Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband for eight years before she suffered a terrible heart attack in 1990 that left her with clearly serious brain damage. Instead, think only the best of Michael and the distress he faced.

Here's how the situation might have unfolded then. The growing emotional and financial burden confronting Mr. Schiavo might understandably have escalated to more than he was able to bear. That happens to lots of people all the time. Some such folk struggle on even then, buoyed either by remarkable personal courage, a wonderful faith, or a combination of the two. Others, however, stumble and fall. "It's too much," they say as they walk away from their burdens. And when we see that, we may be disappointed-but we temper our disappointment with understanding. Most of us haven't walked in those same shoes.

So Michael Schiavo could have done that, as thousands of people do every year, and we would never have known his name. He could have walked out on Terri, turned her care over to her willing parents, and there would have been no national debate last week. Michael Schiavo certainly wouldn't have been a hero, but neither would he have become known worldwide as a cad.

Only the American courts could have made it so complicated. It's not just the content of their decisions in all of this that have been so boneheaded. It's been the very thought that they had to make any decision at all. Why couldn't the very first judge to be involved with the Schiavos' sad tale not have had the wisdom to say to Michael, "Mr. Schiavo, why don't you simply divorce your wife, take the criticism that will come from such action, and get on with your life?"

That would have been too simple. I looked down the street from the Woodside Hospice last Saturday at the long lineup of TV trucks with their gigantic dishes and telescoping transmitting towers. I glimpsed the small city of high-priced reporters and network personnel who had moved in for a two- or three-day encampment. I tried-and failed-to estimate what legal fees and court costs and law enforcement bills might have been. The next day, Congress met in special session and President Bush and Air Force One made an unscheduled flight back to Washington to sign a special bill.

All this says nothing of the high spiritual, moral, and cultural bills from such folly. When the history of euthanasia in America is reviewed a generation or two from now, the story of Terri Schiavo will provide details for one of the earliest and most critical chapters.

It could all have been so simple. All it would have taken was a Solomonic decision by any of a dozen judges-all of whom in this case overcomplicated the case before them. One profound difference, of course, was that in Solomon's case, the court saw to it that the baby lived.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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