Both sides are going to find this inappropriate, but I can't help it: the vigil over Terri Schiavo, in both its glory and its folly, in its collective pity and clock-running-out suspense, reminds me of the international 1988 effort to save three gray whales trapped in the closing Arctic ice.
I can hear it now:
R: How dare you compare a sweet, smiling human woman with an immortal soul to a two-ton hunk of krill-swilling blubber?
L: Hey, they nurse their babies, they communicate -- what's the difference? Besides, at least those whales had normally functioning brains. They were just in natural danger. Set free, they would go on to live full whaley lives.
R: Come on, they were just collecting their Darwin Awards. Whales who dawdle and gossip instead of getting on with their migration get what they deserve. Better they don't pass on their lazy genes.
And so on.
Seriously, there are similarities. In each case, out of all the anonymously suffering creatures on earth -- human and otherwise -- the spotlight of the media picked out one (or three) to make a cause célèbre. Like a "Queen for a Day" of mortality, that chosen one (or three) became the focus of all our anguish and compassion and identification, all our efforts to save her (them) as we would wish someone, someday, to go all out to save us. Some point out that this is ridiculously arbitrary, others that it is a moving manifestation of the human spirit. They're both right.
As I wrote in the abortion rant, this is our effort "to be a part of God," caring about the sparrow's fall, the whale's last gasp, the extinguishing of Terri's smile, rather than a part of nature, which unsentimentally executes precisely the helpless and the impaired. We are much too puny to look out for all beings, so every once in a while we pick one, or are handed one, to stand for all. And I am one of those who thinks it's progress that we can now extend this recognition and fellowship to individuals of other species -- provided that doesn't lead to the hypocrisy of denying it to our own.
Two of the three whales survived, and I can't help hoping Terri does -- that the Supreme Court arrives in time, like a Russian icebreaker. (Not least 'cause if it doesn't, Bush will make Scalia Chief Justice for sure.) Of course this is emotion, not reason. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, one guttering life is nothing.
UPDATE: Jonathan Witt posts a horrifying description of what it feels like to die of thirst.