Monday, March 21, 2005

Why Should We Care About Terri Schiavo?

Update: On Tuesday, a federal judge refused to order the reinsertion of Terri's feeding tube.

Also, see this site for a fantastic summary of the legal wranglings that have resulted from the dispute between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers (Terri's parents). (Hat tip: NakedVillany.) After reading the report of the guardian ad litem appointed by Jeb Bush, I have to say I see Michael Schiavo in a whole new (sympathetic) light, and I can better understand his motivations. But, dammit, there ought to be a better way than starving someone to death. And, visit this site for a synopsis of the Terri Schiavo case.

As most of you know, Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered severe brain damage back in the early 1990s due to interrupted blood flow to her brain, is currently in her fourth day of a state court-ordered deprival of food and water. The effect of the court order, which not only removed her feeding tube but also denies any attempt to provide Terri food and water by mouth is to sentence this woman to a painful death by dehydration and starvation in a week or two.

So, what's the big deal, some people say. The woman is brain-dead. The doctors have said so, and the court has determined so. Pull the plug and let her die so the whole ordeal will be over. That's fine... except that Terri isn't brain-dead, and there is no plug to pull. The only way available to the court to end her life is by denying her access to food and water... something that would kill anyone. If Terri were someone's grandmother living at home after a severe stroke, her guardian would be prosecuted for attempted murder if they were caught denying an invalid sustenance. Why would we treat a woman who has harmed no one, whose only 'crime' is that she has suffered a serious injury, with less regard for her individual rights and her personal comfort that we do monsters like Ted Bundy?

The reason Michael Schiavo gives for fighting to have his wife's life ended by denying her any sustenance is because she is so severely brain-damaged that she will never improve. Therefore any rehabilitation is a waste of money and it would be best for Terri if her life were ended, a position she allegedly agreed to in an off-the-cuff statement she made to her husband years before her injury. Are these valid reasons?

By any objective evaluation, Terri does not meet the criteria for being in a Persistant Vegetative State, according to Florida state law:

(12) "Persistent vegetative state" means a permanent and irreversible condition of unconsciousness in which there is:
(a) The absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior of any kind.
(b) An inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment.

She is responsive to external stimuli, can track and follow objects, and does show signs of recognizing her family members. The true tragedy of Terri Schiavo's situation is that she is as much a victim of the legal system as she was of the disabling accident that caused her brain injury.

It is true that in the original court trial, the presiding judge, Judge George Greer, asserted that it was established as a "finding of fact" that Terri Schiavo was in a Persistent Vegetative State as defined by Florida law. But it is also true that in every single appeal where this "finding of fact" was challenged, the appeals courts have held that since the trial court established this "fact" it cannot be challenged on appeal. In other words, if Judge Greer made an error of fact during the original trial, that error cannot be overruled by an appeals court. Judge Greer has similarly been unwilling to revisit his decision despite being repeatedly urged by the Schindlers and after being presented with seventeen sworn affidavits by medical doctors who dispute his finding.

Michael Schiavo has argued that his wife once expressed to him that she would never want to live if she were in a vegetative state, and he has two members of his immediate family who back him up on this. Interestingly enough, however, he failed to provide this information during the medical malpractice suit he filed on his wife's behalf, instead promising to work with Terri for the rest of his life. He only remembered Terri's "wish to die" in 1998... five years after he filed the malpractice lawsuit and after he won over $1 million that he promised the civil jury would be used to provide for Terri's care and rehabilitation. That was the same jury that Michael Schiavo repeated his wedding vows for, and that he promised he would take care of his wife for the rest of his life. Evidently, winning the lawsuit changed Mr. Schiavo's opinion on his promises.

Michael Schiavo is Terri's husband in name only. Michael has moved on; he has been cohabitating with another woman, whom he characterizes as his 'fiance', since before the lawsuit was settled and they have two children together. As of this date, Mr. Schiavo has not spent a penny of that settlement on rehabilitation for Terri Schiavo as he promised under oath he would to the jury. To the contrary, he has denied her even ordinary medical and hygenic care, with one result being that after not having her teeth brushed for several years Terri had to have four teeth extracted due to extreme decay in 2004. He has denied her any routine medical treatment for infections, and has stated under oath that he hoped that infections Terri suffered would worsen into sepsis and result in her death. Michael Schiavo has had Terri categorized as an indigent and the cost of her care is borne by the state of Florida for the past several years. Do these examples sound like the efforts of a caring husband who would do anything to help his wife?

Where has the settlement money gone? Over $500,000 has been spent on legal fees to pay the attornies Michael has hired to accomplish his goal of cutting off all sustenance to his wife. More money has gone to 'administrative expenses'. Judge Greer has ordered the records of disbursements of Terri's money (the money received by her estate as a result of the malpractice suit filed by her husband) sealed so Terri's family and the public have no exact accounting.

Terri Schindler Schiavo comes from a family of practicing Catholics, and there is extensive evidence that she was a strong believer in the tenets of Catholicism, among them being the tenet of the sanctity of all human life. Her life is filled with anecdotes that fly in the face of her husband's assertion of her desire to die if somehow she was incapacitated. Isn't it suspect then, that only her estranged husband Michael Schiavo and his immediate family are witnesses to her so-called proclamation while Terri's family and close friends unanimously state that such a proclamation is opposed by everything she believed?

As evidenced by the assertions of dozens of otherwise-disinterested doctors, and as demonstrated by several videos on the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation website (videos that Michael Schiavo went to court to attempt to prevent their being seen by the general public), Terri is cognitive. One of Terri's lawyers, an officer of the court, has reported that on Friday, the day of the removal of the feeding tube, Terri tried to speak to object to having the tube removed. This lawyer has filed an affidavit, and her statement was made under penalty of perjury. If you believe that Michael Schiavo is right, that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state, then I ask you to look at the videos (here and here) on the foundation website, and judge for yourself whether Terri appears to be cognitive and responsive to external stimuli.

The real puzzler here is, why is Michael Schiavo still fighting his wife's family and attempting to effectively put Terri to death? My personal opinion is that the original reasons for his position have faded in importance, and the dispute between Michael Schiavo and the Shindler family has taken on a life of its own. Michael will not back down now for reasons that go beyond logic and into the realm of emotion. I'm not going to condemn Michael Schiavo for moving on, for finding someone else, and for building a new family and a new life with that person. However, I do condemn him for not doing the right thing: divorcing his current wife, Terri, sometime between the time he met his 'fiance', had two children with her, and the present. I would think that his 'fiance' ought to be just a little bit worried about whether Michael will take his marriage vows to her more seriously than he has with his current wife. I personally find Michael Schiavo to be repugnant.

I, for one, hope that the federal judge issues a temporary stay so Terri can have her feeding tube re-installed. I hope that both Michael and Terri Schiavo appear in front of a Congressional committee and that some truth is discovered. I hope that the federal judge authorizes new evaluations of Terri by independent medical experts so that the question of whether she is in a Persistent Vegetative State can be conclusively answered for the record. I hope that some light is shone on where Terri's money was spent, and if it was not spent towards Terri's rehabilitation then someone is held legally responsible for misfeasance or malfeasance. I hope that Michael Schiavo decides to truly move on with his life, divorces Terri, marries the mother of his children cum fiance, and gives Terri over to the people who truly love her -- the Schindlers -- together with whatever money is left from the judgement. I hope that the state of Florida would pass a law that would apply to any and every incapacitated person, so that they cannot be denied proper medical and hygenic care without an express written statement.

I am not a particularly religious person, but I have said a prayer for Terri and her family. I hope you will, too.

Note: More information on this issue can be found at Michelle Malkin, LaShawn Barber's website, Powerline, and Captain's Quarters (who covers the MSM's attempt to influence public opinion on Terri instead of reporting public opinion).

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