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I usually like Will Saletan’s writing, even though I also usually disagree with him. But I don’t get the gratuitous reference to Terri Schiavo in his musing about the surgery on the Indian girl to remove extra arms and legs. He wrote in Slate:

Doctors are trying to fix a girl with eight arms and legs. (Pictures here and here.) She had a twin in the womb, but it merged with her body, giving her two extra arms, two extra legs, two extra kidneys, and an extra spine. Medical term for the absorbed twin: parasite. Frequency of this kind of merger: Once per 50,000 births. Surgeons are severing the extra limbs and organs, rearranging her blood vessels, rebuilding her pelvis, and patching her skin where the extras were. Surgery death risk: 20 percent to 25 percent. Indian villagers’ view: The girl is a reincarnated, multiarmed Hindu goddess. (Related: Human Nature’s five previous takes on twinning and cloning and the soul.) Question: If it was wrong to kill a mindless, living human body in the Terri Schiavo case, is it wrong to dismember this “parasite”? Discuss.
Talk about a gratuitous and irrelevant—and cruel—comment. Will: I know you didn’t think your comment could be painful, but Terri Schiavo’s family pays very close attention to these discussions and your crass, denigrating, and irrelevant statement about her in an unrelated discussion is sure to be a shot through their hearts. (This criticism from a man—me—who has inadvertently hurt the feelings of people involved in public controversies; so I am sensitive to that problem.)

But since you asked us to “discuss:” Terri was indeed killed, but we don’t know that she was “mindless” given the continually evolving understanding we have of profound cognitive brain injury. Moreover, such subjective denigrations are irrelevant to her moral worth as a living human being. Her family wanted to care for her. Respected professionals thought her condition could have been improved. The attempt was not even allowed even though the appeals in the case were sure to take more than a year. That “killing” as Saletan put it, is still a matter of serious emotional injury to the Schindler family. They are still subjected to cat calls and name calling, merely for wanting to save beloved’s life. Bringing her into the discussion was wrong. Her case has nothing to do with the Indian girl.

As to the “parasite,” I am not sure to whom Saletan is referring. The living little girl is not a “parasite.” Her twin is long gone, having been absorbed into her sister’s body. The risk of death versus the hoped for benefits of surgery is always an issue, but barring abuse, this is a matter for the parents to decide. The surgery isn’t being done because she has no value as a human being, but to help ensure she has the chance to live a happy life without the intense emotional burden (and potential health problems) that living with her deceased twin’s body parts would cause.

I think Saletan doesn’t believe that people who advocate for the sanctity/equality of human life are capable of nuanced thinking. But perhaps he’s the one.

HT: Lowell Highby

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