Our Culture of Life

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
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Sun Hudson died in a Texas hospital last month, just shy of 6 months old. Few Americans ever heard his name, before his death or since. They ought to learn it, repeat it to themselves and remember it. His fate can teach us a great deal about the American “culture of life” of which President Bush speaks so often.

Death came to little Sun almost instantly after he was removed from life support on March 15 by doctors at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. The hospital had ruled further treatment futile and a state court upheld the ruling, over the furious objections of his mother Wanda.

Sun’s fate bears striking similarities to the better-known case of Terri Schiavo, who was removed from life support in Florida two days later. Both were deemed medically hopeless cases. Both had parents fighting to keep them on life support. Both cases were affected at the end, in very different ways, by statutes signed into law by George W. Bush.

But the differences are at least as striking as the similarities, and far more instructive.

Terri Schiavo was considered brain dead by her doctors at the time her feeding tube was pulled. Sun Hudson was alive and conscious right up to the moment the plug was pulled.

Schiavo had been in a persistent coma since suffering a heart attack in 1990. Sun was born last September 25 with a condition known as thanatophoric dysplasia, a fatal form of dwarfism that prevents the lungs from developing, leaving the baby unable to breathe on its own. It has no known cure, at least not yet.

Schiavo’s husband Michael, her legal custodian, sought to have her removed from life support after doctors ruled out recovery, but he was blocked for years by appeals from her parents and Christian religious activists. The parents and their allies were given one last legal recourse on March 22, when President Bush dramatically flew back to Washington from a Texas vacation to a sign a special law permitting Schiavo’s case — and only Schiavo’s — to be appealed in federal court.

Sun’s mother had been fighting to keep him alive in hopes that a treatment might emerge, or at least until he lived out his allotted years. The hospital decided to pull the plug after ruling that his case was incurable and his mother was unable to find another health care provider willing to take on the case.

Under the so-called Texas Futile Care Law, signed in June 1999 by then-governor George W. Bush — after a dramatic flight to the state capital from the presidential campaign trail — hospitals have a right to end care in hopeless cases, regardless of the wishes of parents or guardians. Families then have 10 days to prove the doctors medically wrong or find another provider willing to take the case.

But Wanda Hudson had no insurance, and so no one would take her son. By contrast, Terri Schiavo’s care was paid for 15 years by her family’s insurance, a $1 million malpractice settlement and, in the end, state Medicaid assistance.

Finally, Schiavo was white. Hudson was black.

In a sense, there should be nothing surprising about Sun Hudson’s death. About 18,000 Americans die every year because they do not have health insurance, according to the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences. The number increases each year as more and more companies opt to reduce costs by cutting their health plans. It will grow even more if the president succeeds in his plan to slash the funding of Medicaid, the last-resort program for the poor.

Each of those deaths is a direct result of the democratic choice made each year by the U.S. Congress not to create a national health insurance program of the sort in place in every other industrialized nation in the world. America — or at least the Congress we elect — has voted repeatedly to reaffirm the belief that individuals are not entitled to life-saving medical care, any more than we are entitled to jobs or food. We have even withdrawn from international treaties that seek to codify such rights.

Agree or not, our nation has made its values clear. Life is a commodity to be bought and sold on the marketplace, an entitlement of those who can afford it.

The obscene circus created around the Schiavo family tragedy last month was consistent with that philosophy. Terri Schiavo’s so-called advocates never once questioned the legitimacy of pulling the plug on disabled patients. Under the leadership of the former Texas governor Bush, they simply reaffirmed the principle that such life-and-death decisions do not belong to individuals, families or even doctors, but to the corporations that pay the hospital bills.

That is our culture of life.

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