I did not realize, until spotting Mark Steyn’s column, that today is the 10th anniversary of Terri Schiavo’s death through court-ordered dehydration/starvation. The legal battle between her family and her estranged husband became a national debate, and so was naturally the subject of many heated arguments in the weekly meetings I then attended of Modesto Bee Community Columnists. Frustrated, I finally put my odd-woman-out thoughts on paper, although the Bee never published it, as it did not meet the “local angle” requirement.
TO LOVE, HONOR AND CHERISH
by Leslie Beggs (2005)
The world is topsy-turvy. When Congress intervened to attempt to have Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube reinserted, Michael Schiavo called it a “sad day . . . because the government is going to come in and trample all over your personal, family matters.” But it is precisely her family who wants her kept alive, and it is he, who lives with another woman and their two children, who wants his legal wife, personally, dead.
Terri Schiavo is caught in a web of he-says vs. my-family-says because she did not leave a written living will document. Her husband claims he is doing out of love what his wife would have wanted. However, a former workmate of Terri’s claims that he was a control freak who monitored the odometer of Terri’s car to make sure she wasn’t making unallowed stops after work. Both the friend and Terri’s family further assert that Terri was planning to leave him.
Instead she experienced her brain-damaging heart attack, and now the husband she was allegedly going to leave, is insisting that she die. The parents claim (along with some doctors and nurses) that Terri is responsive, that she laughs, cries, and at times attempts to speak. They also claim that she could swallow, but that Michael Schiavo has diligently prevented any type of rehabilitation. Mr. Schiavo and his experts claim that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state, that she feels nothing, that her reactions are random brain stem reflexes.
But if she really is in a state of total unself-consciousness, then how does sustaining her with food and water (she breathes on her own just fine) cause her to suffer? If there is no there there, then why can’t Mr. Schiavo let her parents, who are begging to care for their daughter, do so? If she does have some level of awareness and reaction to those around her, how does death through starvation/dehydration, not amount to cruel murder?
A Florida ACLU spokesman claims that the judge who refused to re-hear the case is protecting “the freedom of people to make their own end-of-life decisions without the intrusion of politicians.” But Terri left no written directive and her family contradicts the husband’s version of events at every turn. If there is not reasonable doubt for preserving Terri’s life, then there can be no doubt on anyone’s behalf.
None of us in the public knows who is telling the truth and who is lying regarding Terri Schiavo’s condition, much less how she got there. (Mr. Schiavo will not let cameras into the hospital room.) But we do know that medical experts and legal experts are human, and thus not omniscient when it comes to Terri’s level of awareness.
How can a society which takes extraordinary measures to save beached dolphins (how do we know they didn’t beach themselves on purpose?), justify the legally-directed killing of a woman based primarily on the hearsay evidence of a husband whose marriage vows have long been broken?
So the parents watch their daughter die of thirst while Michael Schiavo’s lawyer celebrates this exercise of Terri’s “personal liberty.” If legal due process does indeed lead to the death of this brain-damaged woman who cannot speak for herself, then our legal system is gravely morally-damaged. So are we.