AN AMERICAN VIEW

The menace of morality crusaders

We are a nation of numskulls—of folks who act first and think later, or, whenever possible, don’t think at all

FRED BRUNING January 21 1991
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The menace of morality crusaders

We are a nation of numskulls—of folks who act first and think later, or, whenever possible, don’t think at all

FRED BRUNING January 21 1991

The menace of morality crusaders

AN AMERICAN VIEW

We are a nation of numskulls—of folks who act first and think later, or, whenever possible, don’t think at all

FRED BRUNING

On Jan. 11, 1983, Nancy Cruzan lost control of her auto on an icy Missouri road. The car, a Rambler too old for safety belts, rolled several times, and Cruzan landed facedown in a ditch. Her heart stopped for at least 12 minutes but, thanks to paramedics, Nancy Cruzan survived.

Or did she?

Denied oxygen for an extended period, Cruzan’s brain lapsed permanently into limbo. Her body became rigid, her knees and arms locked into a fetal position. So tightly bent were her hands that fingernails cut her wrists. She had seizures and vomited. On occasion Cruzan opened her eyes but did not recognize family members. Doctors said that she had no capacity for thought or emotion. Nourishment came by way of a tube attached to her stomach. Alive? Or just living?

An awful question, but three years after the accident, Nancy’s parents, Joyce and Joe Cruzan, could not escape the answer. Determined to end their daughter’s misery, the Cruzans sought a court order allowing removal of the stomach tube. Even an early grave was better than the bloated, comatose, hopeless existence their daughter endured, the Cruzans said— and, they declared, Nancy would have agreed.

But the matter was not easily settled. Suddenly a group of strangers came forward to argue against the family. Anti-euthanasia groups, abortion opponents and the State of Missouri fought the Cruzans, and fought them hard, insisting that even when it barely can be recognized as such, life—all life—must be preserved.

At last, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a’ muddled decision last June, ruled that Americans are entitled to refuse medical assistance, but allowed states to decide if patients have made their wishes sufficiently clear. Opponents claimed that Nancy Cruzan never expressed herself conclusively, but a Missouri probate judge declared otherwise

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

and, last month, hospital authorities disconnected the feeding apparatus. Twelve days later, Nancy Cruzan stopped breathing. She was 33.

“Knowing Nancy as only a family can, there remains no question that we made the choice she would want,” Joyce and Joe Cruzan said in a statement. “Nancy, we will always love you and hold your memory in our hearts.”

Opponents did not exactly distinguish themselves in the family’s moment of grief. At one point before Nancy Cruzan died, demonstrators entered the hospital hoping to reattach the stomach tube—a madcap, and unsuccessful, venture into what might be called guerrilla medicine. Upon Nancy’s death, activists expressed concern for the deceased but contempt for her parents, whose anguish, evidently, they regarded as trivial.

“I have no sympathy for a family who solves their problems by starving their daughter to death,” said the Rev. Joseph Foreman, a Presbyterian minister and protest leader. “Even a dog in Missouri cannot be starved to death.”

One is tempted to inquire what diploma mill provided the good preacher his spiritual bona fides. Who is he—or any associate of his—to accuse the Cruzans of merely “solving a prob-

lem” by terminating life support? Where in the canons of Christianity does the pastor find licence for so twisted a remark? If love and mercy prompted the zeal of opponents, it was a tough sort of love, indeed, a crushing kind of mercy.

Confronted by what Joe Cruzan called a “lose-lose” situation, how would the family’s adversaries have chosen? Either Nancy Cruzan would have languished for years in a condition described by doctors as “a persistent vegetative state” or died far before her time. Are the fearless commandos who attacked the Cruzans’ integrity so very certain—so perfectly convinced—that they would have acted differently if a child of theirs lay blotto in a hospital bed, limbs contorted, liquid dripping into her belly?

Really, we are too much with these pompous souls, and they too much with us. Unfortunately, however, those who bedevilled the Cruzans reveal something essential and exasperating about our character. We have become a nation of pontificators and second-guessers and, sometimes, of moral bullies. To make matters worse, we also are a nation of numskulls—of folks who act first and think later, or, whenever possible, don’t think at all. The combination of the two—the arrogance and the ignorance— makes for a dangerous mix.

Around here, we do not cherish discourse in the usual sense. Conversations have an emotional, not an intellectual, bearing. “Who sez?” asks the voice of America. “I sez,” the nation replies. Despite the feast of information set before us, we mostly sample the gummy bears and barbecue chips—entertainment, gossip, crime, catastrophe. On Liz and Cher, we are experts. When it comes to current events, we can’t beat the buzzer. Rarely do we examine our principles or trace their origins. We believe, therefore we are.

The results are everywhere—in violence against abortion centres, in hollow ravings about “welfare” recipients, in attacks on artistic freedom, in demands for the harshest brand of criminal justice, in our dealings with the outside world. When George Bush snapped his fingers and hustled the first 100,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, he wasn’t being merely provocative or foolhardy. More to the point, the President was being exquisitely American. In a Middle East monarchy or Missouri hospital, we prefer to seize the moment, hoist the flag, appoint ourselves custodians of community standards or regional security—and worry about the outcome another time.

We are fools for false notions, boldly stated. That is the lesson of the Cruzan affair. When some outfit says that it favors “life” under all circumstances, the rest of us should quickly go to red alert. All circumstances? Do the partisans speak out against an impending disaster in the Persian Gulf? Do they oppose the death penalty? Do they demand more money for drug rehabilitation, or don’t junkies count in their scheme of things? Did they complain about our dirty war in Nicaragua? Have they wondered what our bucks do in El Salvador? Being pro-life is an extremely tall order. How do the advocates measure up?