Polemics & Exchanges

On Hard Cases

Thomas Fleming’s reflections on the Schiavo case (“New Wine in Old Bottles,” Perspective, May) disappointed but did not surprise me, since, a few years back, he defended our government when it handed over Elian Gonzalez to the tender mercies of a totalitarian government.  In both cases, the crux of his argument seems to be the right of the husband and father, as head of the family, to make decisions on behalf of family members.  As far as I know, no legal system informed by Christian teaching gives the paterfamilias the right of life and death over family members, a right he enjoyed in Roman times.

The Schiavo case was not a question of the husband, Michael, making decisions regarding medical treatment for his incapacitated wife.  It was a matter of his making the decision to terminate her life.  That is what depriving a patient of nutrition and hydration does.  These things, in Catholic teaching, are not extraordinary treatment or, indeed, treatment at all, but merely the care owed to any sick person.

Christian teaching certainly affords the family substantial authority and autonomy, but that does not mean the state has no jurisdiction in family matters.  The state has a fundamental duty to protect innocent life, which means that the family’s autonomy does not extend to a right...

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