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Hypocrisy and grandstanding in the name of a woman's life


In 1990, Terri Schiavo’s heart stopped beating. Due to a catastrophic imbalance of potassium levels in her system, possibly caused by an eating disorder, her body essentially crashed, stopping her heart and depriving her brain of oxygen for 10 minutes. The resulting brain damage has left her in a persistent vegetative state.


This is different than a coma, in which a person appears to be asleep constantly, or brain death, in which there is no sign of activity in the brain whatsoever, and in many ways it is more painful, since the reflexes of the brain stem continue to function.Terri’s eyes close when she is asleep and open when she is awake, although her wakeful state is nothing like full consciousness. If her eyes are touched, she blinks, and if something obstructs her air passages, she coughs. But her cerebral cortex is essentially gone, replaced with cerebro-spinal fluid. Sometimes patients in persistent vegetative states partially recover; it is not unheard of to have people sent into the state by head trauma regain some cognitive ability, although generally they remain disabled. A persistent vegetative state that was caused by lack of oxygen to the brain that lasts for five years, however, is considered by medical science to be permanent and irremediable. Terri Schiavo has been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen years.

When Terri Schiavo first entered her vegetative state, she was only 26 years old. She had been married to Michael Schiavo for five years after meeting him while they were both in college. At first Michael Schiavo was “relentless,” in the words of his friends, in trying to find a cure or treatment for his wife. He helped Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, move into the area to be close to their daughter, even renting a large house for all three of them to share. He dressed Terri every day, applying makeup and perfume that she used to wear. He took Terri to California for an experimental therapy, then back to Florida into a series of rehabilitation centers and nursing facilities in which she received different regimens of therapies and care, all with no success. He attended nursing school in order to learn how to care for her most effectively. In 1993, Schiavo received a $1 million medical malpractice judgment on Terri’s behalf, most of which went to financing the various cares she went through.

It was only after eight long years of trying to bring Terri back that Michael accepted that her vegetative state was permanent. And it was then that he first looked into having her feeding tube removed, in accordance with what Terri had expressed to him. In 1988, despite having signed a “do not resuscitate” order, Michael’s grandmother was put on a ventilator and medications to keep her heart beating after she became brain-dead due to illness. It was only after the machines were hooked up that the doctors even looked at the DNR order, and after the family’s confirmation they had to wait for the medications keeping her heart going wore off to take her off the ventilator. At the funeral, Terri told Michael that if she were ever in the same position as his grandmother, she would want to be taken off life support, saying “If I’m ever like that, oh, don’t let me. Pull that tube out of me.”

And until a few days ago, that expression of intent by Terri Shiavo, communicated orally to her husband, was sufficient under the law of Florida (and many other states) to permit Terri to have the peace she desired. The courts and lawmakers who have dealt with these terrible types of situation have spoken virtually unanimously to say that, when the affected patient has not provided a written set of instructions, another person must be the “surrogate decision-maker.” And in cases where the loved ones of the patient disagree, preference is always given to the spouse. This is true not only for questions of whether to take extraordinary measures to prolong some sort of life, but also for decisions about funeral and burial arrangements and questions of inheritance: spouses are always turned to first. As Dahlia Lithwick of Slate explained over a year and a half ago in reference to the Schiavo case, the prioritizing of the spouse is for a very simple reason: you choose your spouse. You don’t choose your family. It is assumed your spouse knows the everyday details of your life and beliefs, and that if you choose to be with them you trust their judgment in even the most final matters of your life.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, that judgment has not been allowed to stand in the case of Michael and Terri Schiavo. To be clear, I don’t fault the Schindlers one bit for taking their fight as far as they can. It must be an unimaginable tragedy to lose a child, and even worse to have ones child in such a strange limbo, with Terri’s heart still beating even though Terri herself has been gone for fifteen years. The toll of the situation should be recognized in the fact that it took Michael eight years to accept any sort of finality with regards to Terri’s chances of recovery, and slowly start to move in what he believes to be the direction Terri wanted—to let her go. I don’t blame her parents for not wanting to accept that she’s gone, and to make those steps of their own.

I do blame the Republican politicians that have seized upon the issue as a most profoundly abhorrent political opportunity. Court appeals, however drawn-out they may be, are the proper channel through which to conduct such a dispute. Terri’s parents had the legal right to attempt the appeals through the Florida courts. Those appeals were heard and adjudicated, at length, and each court ruled in favor of Michael.

The Florida House and Senate, however, had no such right to pass unconstitutional legislation that was informally called “Terri’s Law” giving Governor Jeb Bush the right to overrule all Florida state courts and issue an order of his own to reinstate Terri’s feeding tube. The United States Congress had no right to pass legislation tailored to specifically throw Terri Schiavo’s case, and her case only, into federal jurisdiction (presumably in the hope that a federal judge would provide them with the outcome they desired). President Bush had no reason to interrupt one of his record-setting vacations to return to the White House in order to be able to hold a dramatic midnight-hour signing of that bill.

Republicans throughout the political world have seized upon the supposed issue of Terri Schiavo as an opportunity to promote a “culture of life”—which, naturally, encompasses not only the naturally sympathetic horror of an effectively brain-dead woman whose bare reflexes offer a poignant, if unrealistic, chimera of hope for her parents, but less publicity-friendly issues such as abortion and stem cell research.

Republican members of Congress who worked as physicians before entering politics have utilized this opportunity to display a particularly hypocritical faux expertise. Representatives Dave Weldon of Florida, Phil Gringey of Georgia, and Joe Schwarz of Michigan, have offered their “medical” opinions upon viewing short videotapes of Terri Schiavo—these ill-informed diagnoses, might I add, made by former specialists in internal medicine, ob-gyn practice, and ear, nose and throat rather than in recognizing or treating PVS. Senator Bill Frist, considered to be a front-runner for the Republican Presidential nod in 2008, declared that the decision was made “without a clear-cut diagnosis, or in what my mind was a clear-cut diagnosis.” I suppose the opinion of a heart and lung surgeon who has never seen a potential patient in person should command the pulpit over the objective and thorough evaluations of seven years of medical examinations by physicians actually competent to make an analysis.

Or perhaps it is the more obvious explanation that, as an anonymous memo this last week stressed to Republican politicians, Terri Schiavo was “a great political issue” that would “excite” Christian conservatives. Tom DeLay told a conference of the religious right-ist Family Research Council that God brought Terri Schiavo to him in order to publicize the “attacks against the conservative movement,” brought by “a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in.”

For extra fire and brimstone, DeLay then personally attacked the grieving husband attempting to do what he thinks best for his wife, impugning Schiavo’s character because, in the years since his wife’s accident, he has fathered children with another woman. After Schiavo refused to divorce Terri, even though she has not shown cognizance for fifteen years, he is reduced to being labeled a “common-law bigamist” by a United States Representative on the floor of Congress.

And of course, there is the profound hypocrisy of one George W. Bush. As Governor of Texas, in 1999 Bush signed the Advanced Directives Act, not only designating the spouse of a brain-dead patient as the appropriate surrogate decision-maker in such questions of extraordinary measures to prolong some sort of life, but declaring that a committee formed by the hospital in which such a patient was receiving care could decide to end such a patient’s life even if the patient’s entire family and surrogate decision-maker wanted the life support to continue. If Terri Schiavo was being cared for in a Texas hospital, and Michael Schiavo wanted to keep her feeding tube in but ran out of money to pay for it, a committee formed from the administration of that hospital could decide to take her feeding tube out, even though Michael Schiavo wanted it kept in. Such is the Republican commitment to life, when the life at stake doesn’t have enough money to pay for the hospital bills.

Yet this is the President who had to trumpet his return from the Texas ranch in order to sign a bill meant only for one particular individual the very second it passed the emergency session of Congress. This is the Republican Party that hosted Terri Schiavo’s brother as a guest of honor at a rally during the Republican National Convention in New York.

Again, I don’t fault the Schindlers for doing what they think is best for their daughter. I can’t imagine what I would do if faced with the same decision—if my partner were to be judged brain dead by dozens of doctors, I don’t know if I would have the strength to take him off life support if I could still look into his eyes and have the barest hint of hope that his prognosis might improve, no matter how imaginary the hope might be.

But at the same time, if I were to be the one whose life had essentially fled fifteen years before, I wouldn’t want my family and partner to be locked in perpetual legal conflict. I wouldn’t want my partner to remain devoted to an empty shell for the rest of his life. And I wouldn’t want to become a particularly gruesome trophy on which politicians would stake their claims to electoral triumph.

Rabbi Elliott Dorf was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “At some point or another, we have to recognize that death has come and begin to deal with that appropriately, not medically, but through the mourning process.” The procedures for determining a patient’s wishes with regard to remaining on artificial life support are well-established, by both the legislatures and the judiciary, all the way to the Supreme Court. By seizing on Terri Schiavo as grist for the political mill, the Republican politicians exploiting her family’s pain are merely prolonging a tragically poignant and painful process. They should be ashamed. And they should move on.


The comments from this article have been removed due to flaming and excessive profanity.


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