Terri Schiavo Utilitarianism

Jim Henley makes the entirely reasonable argument that a weighing of the felicific calculus in the matter of Terri Schiavo would seem to lean heavily toward the parents:

[I]f Terry Schiavo’s parents are willing to assume “custody” of her and provide for her care, why would that not be an acceptable outcome for all concerned? Michael can have a divorce and remarry. His parents get the fulfillment they wish or the punishment they deserve.


That leaves the vigorous living as our scope of concern. Killing her would, on all evidence, cause her parents grievous woe. Maintaining her husband̢۪s responsibility for her care and feeding would perpetuate a leaden ache in his life. Legalities aside, why not make the switch of responsibility and send everyone on their way?

In an update to the post, he notes Matt Yglesias‘ argument on the need for legal structure.

[A]s they say on Seinfeld, we’re trying to live in a society here. That society is governed by laws. You can’t have the Congress going around trying to make post hoc revisions and exceptions to state laws. These decisions regarding people in permanent vegetative states are difficult, and there need to be rules governing how to deal with them.

Quite right. There are all manner of practical reasons not to treat all cases de novo rather than as part of a body of law. Clogging the court dockets, the drain on society’s resources, the prolonging of the anguish of all concerned, etc. seem to mitigate against that.

The default position for those without a living will should be that the next of kin decides. For an unmarried person, that would be the parents. For a married person, that would be the spouse. Absent compelling evidence otherwise, we must presume that the next of kin is in the best position to represent the best interests of those unable to make medical or legal decisions for themselves.

As noted in the post below, there seems to be an incredible indifference to what the law is here, with both sides (the litigants as well as interested outside parties, including various political leaders) willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve their preferred outcome. While understandable from a human-emotional perspective, such is not the way to achieve a livable society.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cam Wolff says:

    So, the feeding of a disabled citizen is a crime? Is it not the morality of our courts and the press that is in a persistent vegetative state?

    On one hand we argue the privacy of the family and the importance of allowing them the right to make this deeply personal decision. When we ask, “What family member should make this decision? Should it be the husband who has taken a common law wife and had children by her? Or, should it be by the parents who want to care for their daughter and make available to her basic therapy that here husband has denied”. At that point the response is “the law states the husband can make this call”. Oh, so this isn’t deeply private and personal; it is guided by the law. Does congress not make the laws?

    The culture of death continues to march while the courts and the press lay down the pavement before them.

    Please pray for Terri Schiavo.

  2. Dutchmarbel says:

    But it is not about what the parents want, or what the husband wants. The courts were asked to decide what Terri would want and according to them there was clear evidence that Terri would not want to be kept semi-alife like this.

  3. McGehee says:

    The default position for those without a living will should be that the next of kin decides.

    No. The default position for those without a living will should be that they live. The concept of the living will when introduced was that this was a way for those who wouldn’t want to live, to make sure their wishes were carried out. By definition that means that the absence of a living will means absence of a desire to die.

    But I guess we rely on the courts to change things like this — instead of the legislative branch.

    God, I hate lawyers.

  4. McGehee says:

    …according to them there was clear evidence that Terri would not want to be kept semi-alife like this.

    Basede solely on hearsay evidence from her husband.

  5. James Joyner says:

    McGehee: Well, no. For one thing, living wills weren’t common 15 years ago when Terri Schiavo suffered her heart attacks and brain damage. Further, we have allowed families to make these decisions since time immemorial.

    And the courts have more than just hearsay from the husband. There were several other witnesses who testified that Terri, on multiple instances (apparently following funerals of people who’d been kept around on various machines too long) expressed her wish not to live in that manner.

  6. Teri says:

    It’s sad that after decades of feminist progress, Terri’s case boils down to the fact that her husband legally has total control of her body.

  7. ASoldier'sGirl says:

    Anyone notice that we’re spending all this time and money worrying about someone who is brain dead but we don’t care about the 1500 dead Americans in Iraq? Or the Iraqi’s we’ve killed/wounded/injured?

  8. A. . Ray says:

    It does not seem to matter to alot of people that if Terry wanted to die , she would not fight so hard to stay alive! This is a fact. To remove the feeding tube is to starve her to death, (think about that, STARVE TO DEATH ) a human being. I can think of alot of ways to die but none as scary as to be forced to starve to death with the people you love and trust , standing right there beside you and , you cannot even ask for their help or get it. This is something I cannot perceive that a careing human would do even to a dog.

  9. B. Ray says:

    Where are You!! The loyal Americans ! 1500 of our Young men and women dying in Iraq , and you will not even pick up the phone call your congressman and demand that this injustice stop! I understand that you feel relatively safe in your home, that is protected by Law enforcemant ( police officers have died for you) Firemen ( firemen have died for you) Soldiers have died for you. Where does it say in our constitution that if you are mentally retarded that no one should fight for you. Where are you hiding from Terry!!

  10. d.melinu says:

    Mrs. Shindler has declared that, even if Terry had said to her she did not want to stay alive by artificial means, she will keep her alive. Maybe that’s why she talked about it with her husband and friends. As a mother I understand their pain, but the Shindlers are not fighting for Terry’s rights. They are fighting for what they want without any regard to their daughter’s wishes.

  11. Sandy G. says:

    First off she’s not brain dead. Second her husband has commited adultery. It’s his word against hers as to her wishes. What doesn’t he want us all to find out? She may have said after funerals of people kept on machines she would not want to live that way. She was not on a machine.
    Of course her parents want their child to live. We scream at those that kill their own children, now we have attitudes because these parents want to save theirs.
    We can all debate this untill the cows come home. The fact is she’s being murdered and hasn’t commited any crime but to marry that dirt bag.