A word fitly spoken

We are great admirers of Yale Professor David Gelernter. There are few men like him in American public life today. Many of his rare qualities were on display in his Wall Street Journal column of October 2003, “Terri Schiavo’s life.” Our friend Hugh Hewitt dug up our post excerpting Professor Gelernter’s column in our archives. Given its unfortunate timeliness tonight, I’m taking the liberty of bringing it back for a second look.
Professor Gelernter first introduced the subject for those who have not yet heard of Terri Schiavo:

The death-by-starvation facing Terri Schiavo was averted yesterday when the Florida legislature passed a bill letting Gov. Jeb Bush intervene to save her life. Mrs. Schiavo has been severely mentally disabled since her heart stopped for a time in 1990. Although doctors have called her condition “vegetative,” she breathes on her own, her eyes are open and in video clips she appears to respond with smiles to the sound of her mother’s voice. That is one ground on which her parents have pleaded with authorities to let their daughter live. But last week her husband ordered her feeding tube removed, and until the legislature acted, Gov. Bush had no authority to override Michael Schiavo’s decision.
Mrs. Schiavo’s parents believe that she knows them and is comforted by them. They believe they are communing with their daughter…

Professor Gelernter advocated the cause of Terri Schiavo’s parents. He asked:

[W]ho dares say you have no right to commune with your gravely ill child? To comfort your child? To pray for your child? Who dares say you have no right to hope that she will recover no matter what the doctors say? Who dares say you have no right to comfort, commune with and pray for her even if you have given up hope? Yes, the woman is mortally ill. Who dares say that her life is therefore worthless, to be cut off at her husband’s whim?

Professor Gelernter clearly saw Terri Schiavo’s cause as one larger than Schiavo’s parents:

The rabbis speak often of the crucial religious obligation of visiting and comforting the sick. They derive the requirement directly from what they call the “greatest principle of Torah,” a certain verse in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God Himself is said to have visited ailing Abraham. When you visit sick people, your most important duty is to pray for their recovery. Such an act matters profoundly not only to the sick but (as a positive religious obligation) to the visitor, and the society he represents. “He who visits a sick man,” Maimonides writes, “is as though he would take away part of his sickness and lighten his pain.” Who dares deprive parents of that right?

Professor Gelernter contrasted the license to kill granted by the abortion culture with the procedural protections surrounding capital punishment:

When we have condemned a criminal to death, it is remarkable how patient we are in extending his life. So long as there are legal paths to follow, we follow them; and the courts are apt to postpone the execution. Both aspects of the process speak well for us: that we are willing (however painful it may be for us — and it gets more painful every year) to execute murderers; and that we are in no hurry to, and will search on and on for a convincing reason not to.
With the likes of Mrs. Schiavo, we are a lot less patient. The governor can grant a stay of execution when a condemned murderer’s life is on the line. Mrs. Schiavo’s stay required that the whole Florida legislature mobilize for action. The frightening question is: What happens to the next Mrs. Schiavo? And the next plus a hundred or a thousand? How much attention will the public and the legislature be able to muster for this sort of thing over the years? The war against Judeo-Christian morality is a war of attrition. Time is on the instigators’ side. They have all the patience in the world, and all the patients. If this one lives, there is always the next. After all, it’s the principle of the thing.
For years, thoughtful people have argued that “reasons for taking a human life” should not be treated as a growing list. There are valid reasons to do it, and they have been agreed for millennia. If the list has to change, better to shorten than lengthen it.
Thoughtful people have argued: Once you start footnoting innocent human life, you are in trouble. Innocent life must not be taken… unless (here come the footnotes) the subject is too small, sick, or depressed to complain. One footnote, people have argued, and the jig is up; in the long run the accumulating footnotes will strangle humane society like algae choking a pond.
Who would have believed when the Supreme Court legalized abortion that, one generation later, only one, America would have come to this? Mrs. Schiavo’s parents wanting her to live, pleading for her to live, the state saying no, and a meeting of the legislature required to pry the executioner’s fingers from the victim’s throat?
I would never have made such an argument when the abortion decision came down, and I would never have believed it. I still can’t believe it. Is this America? Do I wake or sleep?


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