Thursday, March 31, 2005

I feel a little guilty blogging about Terri Schiavo, becuase honestly, I don't think any of what follows is really about her. It's clearly about me: my health, my fear, my anger at my doctors, my current freak-out. And I feel shitty about being just another person who's using her and her family's suffering to further my own agenda, however inchoate that agenda might be. So I'm sorry, to all of the people who have been hurt by this mess, that I'm exploiting their hurt.

So anyway, here's a true story. My older brother was born with pyloric stenosis, a blockage in the stomach. This is a pretty common and not terribly serious condition, but it requires surgery. So when he was two weeks old, my brother had an operation to unblock his intestines.

At the time, pediatricians were convinced that newborns couldn't feel pain. They might act like they were hurt, but that was just an instinctive reaction to stimulus. Studies had shown that their nerves were not developed enough for them to really feel anything. My parents weren't crazy about the idea of subjecting their child to an operation without anesthesia, but the doctors assured them they were being irrational. Insisting on anesthesia would be abusive: there are risks associated with anesthesia, and they'd be taking those risks for no reason, because my brother was too young to feel anything. My parents were putting their uneducated, emotional, irrational feelings over the doctors' scientific expertise. Duly shamed, my folks agreed to allow the operation to be done with anesthesia.

The problem is that the doctors were wrong. Newborns can, of course, feel pain. The current policy of the American Academy of Pediatrics" is that infants should be given painkillers using the same criteria that would be used for anyone else. My brother's doctors were totally convinced that he couldn't feel anything, but they really just didn't understand as much as they thought they did about infants' nervous systems. And as a result, one of my brother's earliest experiences was the experience of being tortured. The operation took about an hour, and he was awake and conscious and in agony the whole time.

On a lot of lefty blogs, people are suggesting that if you don't take doctors' word as Gospel, you're anti-science, and if you don't take the courts' verdicts as the last word, you're anti-law. And I don't buy it. If you don't believe me, look up Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court case upholding the right of states to sterilize "feebleminded" or insane people. Doctors held that this was necessary to protect the population from hereditary birth defects. The court held that necessary safeguards were in place to prevent abuse. And they were all wrong. Forcible sterilization was a huge evil, a real blot on American history. The fact that it was legally and medically sanctioned doesn't make that any less true.

I really don't know what I think about the Terri Schiavo case, except that I feel huge amounts of sympathy for her entire family. But it bothers me and frankly scares me a bit that people on the left seem so willing to take for granted medical and legal expertise. I know that it's the best we've got, but it's still imperfect. And there's nothing anti-intellectual about pointing that out.

Comments:
It isn't anti-science to question any given scientific claim. Jeez, i thought that was what scientists did - why do new research if everything is fine as it is? Guess i'm just ignorant, huh? :-/
 
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