Once again, legal motions in the Terri Schiavo case are reaching a hurried pace as an imminent decision may lift the stay and allow Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, to remove her feeding tube. If the history of this case is any indication, such a decision would only be the beginning of another phase of this protracted judicial struggle. Based on the evidence in this case, although Michael Schiavo may not be a likeable person, he should be allowed as husband and legal guardian of his wife to honor her verbal wishes and have the feeding tube removed.
For those not familiar, Terri Schiavo is the Pinellas Park woman who experienced heart failure due to a decreased potassium level in 1990 at the age of 26. She survives in what some doctors agree is a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Harvard Medical School’s Consumer Health Information defines PVS as a state “in which a person appears to be awake, but does not respond to the outside world.” Michael Schiavo has successfully argued, through legal representation, that his wife made it clear that she would not want to be kept alive through artificial means prior to 1990 and witnesses have agreed that Terri made such statements.
Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have lined up doctors of their own disputing the PVS diagnosis and believe their daughter can be rehabilitated. The Schindlers have voiced hope following a recent study reported on in The New York Times indicating that minimally conscious patients, through brain-imaging testing, had a greater level of awareness than they were previously thought to possess.
The study appears to raise more questions than really answer any in the Schiavo case. For one, minimally conscious patients are different than those diagnosed as PVS, which would take the Schiavo debate back to its origin.
In addition, if a court was to allow such a test, as Terri’s parents advocate, and the results came back showing that there was no cognitive awareness, would the debate end? Of course it wouldn’t. That is the problem with this case: The Schindlers appear unwilling to accept medical evidence if it is counter to their belief that their daughter can be rehabilitated.
Unfortunately for Terri, the national media maelstrom surrounding the case has caused the story to have less to do with Terri Schiavo and more to do with right-to-life advocates broadening the scope of their sanctity-of-life agenda.
In the fall of 2003, when Terri’s feeding tube was removed for the second time after a court ruling, the Schindlers enlisted the help of Randall Terry to further their cause. Terry’s infamous past includes being the founder of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion organization that harassed women seeking abortions in the 1980s and ’90s. Terry has been widely praised by the Schindlers and was instrumental in linking the Schindlers with Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the “Terri’s Law” legislation in October of 2003. This hastily conceived legislation allowed the governor to order the re-insertion of Schiavo’s feeding tube.
Even for the conservative right-to-life advocates that have pushed for legislation, Gov. Bush’s intervention seems hard to support. Traditionally, the political mantra of such groups is one seeking a smaller government role in the lives of Americans. Are they now flip-flopping views to support a greater political agenda, vacuously ignoring the verbal wishes of Terri Schiavo prior to 1990? “Terri’s Law” has rightfully been ruled unconstitutional, and one can only hope that legislative and executive intrusion into the difficult decision Michael Schiavo must make will cease.
Admittedly, Michael Schiavo probably hasn’t helped his case in the court of public opinion by living with another woman and fathering two children with her. In addition, Michael Schiavo’s intimate relationship with a woman a year and a half after Terri’s collapse yielded a deposition that painted Michael as extremely possessive, mean and adept at stalking. These, and other characterizations of Michael, really have no bearing on the merits of the Terri Schiavo case. Just because Michael is not necessarily a good person — which I tend to agree with — does not mean that his wife’s wishes should not be respected and carried out.
No matter what side of this divisive case you find yourself on, the importance of advance directives and living wills cannot be overemphasized. The key is to designate in writing your wishes not just before a medical procedure, but today. The case of Terri Schiavo would be a non-issue if such a directive had been available. Although those of us in college may believe ourselves to be invincible, clearly enunciating our desires is important should the unexpected occur. In the case of Terri Schiavo, her verbal wishes have consistently been recognized by the courts and should be honored, allowing Terri to die with dignity.
Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in firstname.lastname@example.org