As many have been known to say, there is nothing new under the sun anymore. It’s all been said before, thought about and most likely acted upon, at least for a time. So generally speaking, we can look to our past for solutions to some of our modern day problems (with appropriate modifications for the modern age). Terri Schiavo’s dilemma is a case in point.
“The Schindler's fight for Terri...
"Take the money, let us have our daughter."
The Schindler's lost their daughter to a medical complication in 1990. Terri's heart stopped briefly. She has been in a coma for over a decade.
Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, has fought the family for three and a half years to pull Terri's feeding tube. He believes she would want to die rather than live like she has these past years.
"We just want to feed her. We just want to bring her home. She's not on a respirator or, as she was portrayed, a vegetable or a houseplant" said Suzanne Carr, Terri's sister.
"The malpractice money was distributed to him to care for her," said Carr. "As soon as he got the money, he asked the judge to kill her."
The family does not care about the money. All they want is their daughter and sister to remain alive.
"We will sign any agreement you want, giving you all money related to Terri's collapse and any money that may be forthcoming" Mary and Bob Schindler, Terri's parents, stated in a written plea to Schiavo.
"You just take the money. We just want our daughter," they said.
Having to watch a loved one suffer is painful enough, but to have that person's life end short is even harder. Laws state that the guardian has the right to end a life, as Schiavo has done."
Information Courtesy of Article: Florida Family Fights to Keep Daughter Alive
Hannah Goodwyn - 10/24/03
Although it might appear that none of the ancestors of our own civilization, such as the Romans, could possibly have any guidance to offer us today, I think that we can still turn to the ancients from time to time for some ideas on how to handle certain situations. The Schiavo situation is a good example of what I’m taking about. For make no mistake about it, these are situations that will begin to appear more and more frequently as marriage continues its transformation from a lifetime commitment into the more or less temporary legal agreement between partners. The days when a wife or husband could be the final arbitrator of their spouse’s fate are probably over for most of us, as they should be.
I mean, let’s face it with a 50% divorce rate and many of this 50% taking place at the 5 year ‘watermark’, it’s unrealistic to think that the laws and social mores we’ve established for a society where marriage was ‘until death to us part’ are still relevant today.
This is not really a legal argument about the right to die so much as has been portrayed, but more realistically about which family member should have the right to speak for you when you can’t speak for yourself along with the legal issue of who should have control of your property, again, when you’re unable to exercise any control yourself. Morally speaking a parental relationship of more then 20 years duration between Terry and her parents wins out (as it should) over a marriage of a few years duration. Particularly when the ‘husband’ has already re-married, in all but name, for almost 10 years now and has two children with his second wife.
The proper, decent and honorable thing for Michael Schiavo to have done was to divorce his wife ten years ago or whenever the burden became too much for him and his new family to face and allowed Terri’s parents to have reassumed the guardianship of their daughter; thus, we wouldn’t be facing this issue today. Nevertheless we are, so let’s return to how the Romans handled these sorts of tricky dilemmas and see if we can get any useful ideas from their wisdom…
Of course we know the Romans were not faced with issues of lingering death as medical technology had not advanced to the point we are at today, where someone can be kept alive indefinitely with little or no quality of life. Also since most Roman citizens were worth little or nothing anyway, many of the laws governing inheritance, dowry, custody of children, etc. probably were moot for most Roman citizens. Unlike our society today, where the laws apply equally to everyone because quite frankly just about everyone in the US is worth something as either an insurance policy/settlement, private pension or even government death benefits can be turned into assets for a beneficiary or dependent at the point of divorce, disability or death.
Even acknowledging the limited impact of Roman laws on most citizens, however, I think we can still extrapolate a few gems of wisdom from tracing the evolution of Roman laws regarding marriage and the handling of property before, during and after the fact.
For instance, one of the big issues for Roman elite society (just as it is for all levels of our society today) was the high divorce rate. Since women owned nothing of their own, a marriage was usually arranged with a dowry paid by the bride’s father to the groom. A dowry could be quite substantial in some cases maybe the size of a state or entire region with farms, orchards, herds, etc., throughout it, but generally was probably some working farms, orchards, or even small factories making goods for sale and run by slaves. As I noted above, the dowry was paid by a woman’s father to her husband, usually just before or right after the marriage took place. Generally the income-producing asset was NOT allowed to be sold, but instead the income from it was used to support the new wife’s household and any children she subsequently bore.
The original laws governing dowry was that, after divorce (which remember was frequent for the elite classes of ancient Rome), it was returned to the woman’s family (her father) from whence it originated. A portion, averaging about 5% or so was kept as income by the ex-husband for child support for any children his wife bore during the life of the marriage (since it was considered solely the responsibility of the wife and her family to provide for any of her childrens’ support; although said children were expected to reside within the husband’s household and husband was to direct their education using those funds)…but other then that 5%, MOST of the dowry was returned from whence it came, a woman’s family (her father).
Of course, as time passed, more and more ex-husbands tried to hand over less and less of the dowry and these situations eventually morphed into contested court cases that went on for years as various family members fought for the dowry’s return or the restoration of an intact asset that had either been sold or its value degraded in some way during the marriage. These sorts of cases sometimes dragged on for years and could even morph into full-fledged family feuds or mini-wars (very similar to an American divorce fight over marital assets today; but instead of just a fight between a man and wife, the fight between a man’s family and his wife’s entire family, most of the litigants men and everybody armed with a large sword or sharp dagger…PS a horror). Anyway to make a long story shorter, the Roman state could not have its small aristocracy generate such ill will amongst themselves with these squabbles, thus something had to be done.
Thus came the idea of the marriage sin mano versus the traditional idea of the marriage cum mano, roughly translated into marriage under the hand versus marriage without it. Marriage cum mano, which was the usual form of marriage up to this time, allowed both husband and wives’ property (dowry) to be under the husband’s control. The later form of marriages, marriage sin mano was supposedly fairer to women as it legally allowed her property to remain under the control of her father, as opposed to her husband. Of course, it still left a male guardian in charge of women’s property but presumably one with a lifetime relationship with her, as opposed to one of a few years’ duration.
We can see from the vague outlines of the two forms of marriage here how adoption of some aspects of these forms for use in modern western civilization could alleviate some of the more common problems associated with sudden death or disability within a short term marriage. For instance maybe every marriage performed could be ‘sin mano’ until the ten year mark was obtained and then the ‘cum mano’ form came into effect either automatically or upon request. The social security system has a similar waiting period before a person is eligible for a portion of their spouse's pension, a ten year waiting period, which seems adequate.
Of course, let’s keep in mind no system is perfect and whatever system we endorse will have some flaws, such as are the parents/family whose children chose the ‘sin mano’ forms of marriage responsible for their childrens’ debts or are they still the responsibility of their spouse? What about child support? Or even child custody? Does the ‘sin mano’ form of marriage also give an implied consent to grandparent custody or responsibility for child support as it could be construed to mean at some point down the road.
Still even with the uncertainty of what could happen under various scenarios, I think we need to begin looking into some new forms of marriage anyway, since these issues are sure to continue bedeviling us. As I said previously, marriage itself is changing from a long-term commitment into a short-term arrangement, which simply is no longer adequate to deal with the sorts of life and death issues that the Schavio situation presents.
Over the long term the bigger question for mothers obviously will become, will these changes be good for women in their role as mothers? I, personally think they will be, but only time will tell. For the short-term they will provide a bulkwork in women’s’ favor by legally empowering her family to act as a counterbalance against a husband (who is generally older, better educated and in a more secure financial position) and thereby prevent many of the sorts of legal shenanigans that were very evidently employed in the Schiavo case; as well as some more recent custody cases such as the Bridget Marks and Jerica Rhodes situations.
Information on Roman laws and mores obtained courtesy of Professor William Harris in his lectures: Family/Sexuality in Greece/Rome, Columbia University. Information on marriage customs in ancient Rome obtained courtesy of Professor Michael King in his lectures: Selections in Latin Literature, Columbia University…