Is there anything more tragic than a helpless woman lying in bed while her husband and parents are locked in a bitter battle over whether to keep her alive or not? I can’t think of many more painful situations. Yet, that is the set of circumstances in which 41-year-old Terri Schiavo and her family find themselves in Florida.
That would be bad enough, but of course that’s not all. In an effort to swoop down and clean up this family mess, the federal government last week hurriedly passed a bill allowing federal judges to hear appeals by Schiavo’s parents to reinsert her feeding tube, which she depends on for nutrition. As of this writing, the tube had been removed for four days, a move supported by Schiavo’s husband, Michael Schiavo.
How did we get to this point of total breakdown and bitterness? First, Terri Schiavo did not clearly articulate, in a
“living will,” whether she would want to live or die in her situation. Thus, the battle among her family members over what they think her intentions were. Her husband says she would not want to continue living like this. Her parents, the Schindlers, say she would and hold out hope for a recovery.
Unfortunately for the Schindlers, law has long dictated that a person’s spouse holds authority in situations like this. The spouse is usually most proximate to a person during adulthood years, and it is assumed that one spouse would know the other’s wishes better than parents.
The problem here gets worse with the complicating issues surrounding Michael, the husband. He has a girlfriend with whom he also has two kids. Terri dying would conveniently enough allow him to marry the girlfriend and live happily ever after with her and the kids.
We can’t tell whether this is what is driving Michael Schiavo, or whether it’s a genuine belief that Terri would want to die, or some combination of the two. Problem is, in the absence of any indication from Terri herself, court after court has had no choice but to conclude from his testimony that Terri would prefer to die.
There is certainly an argument to be made. Terri Schiavo has been in this “persistent vegetative state” since suffering severe brain damage in 1990. Though she can breathe on her own and open her eyes, she requires the feeding tube to give her food and water each day. In 15 years, she has shown little sign of making a recovery.
However, despite the ridiculous rhetoric being spewed by ill-informed people, Terri is not dead, brain-dead, or anything of the sort. To dismissively call her a vegetable is to make a mockery of the situation in the interest of scoring points toward the goal of killing her. The truth is, no one really knows how conscious Terri is, how much comprehension of the outside world exists in the shell of a human being that remains of her.
Thus, we arrive at the argument put forth by Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. They are able and willing to care for her, to enjoy what remains of Terri under the assumption that she would want to continue living, however incapacitated. Under the circumstances, and given the fact that we can’t know Terri’s wishes for sure, one has to wonder why the husband is putting up such a fuss about letting Terri live.
Yet his word appears to be the final one. The law thus far has led to the conclusion that Terri’s feeding tube must be removed at the request of her husband. So the tube has been removed, and Terri Schiavo is presently starving to death, if she isn’t dead already.
In response, Republican leaders in Congress staged what was, to be blunt, a constitutional coup d’etat and passed a bill granting federal judges jurisdiction to hear more appeals by the Schindlers. This was necessitated when all of Florida’s state courts sided with Michael Schiavo. The bill makes a mockery of the separation of powers doctrine and looked even more ridiculous when President Bush was woken up at 1:11am to sign the thing.
It was one thing, in October 2003, when Florida Republicans passed a law allowing the tube to be reinserted while state courts considered the case. But this federal bill goes over the constitutional line in a misguided and unnecessary attempt to cater to the party’s most conservative members.
Don’t get me wrong. Starving a living human being to death, no matter her condition, is a moral tragedy to the highest degree when it’s not clear the person wants to die. So as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer eloquently put it, what we’re left with is choosing between a human tragedy and a legal travesty. It’s a shame all around, and hopefully the immense exposure this case is getting will convince people to make their most important intentions clearly known while they still can.