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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Subliminal Understanding That What Happened to Terri Schiavo Was Wrong?



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I think Bobby Schindler is right.

There have been a lot of stories of late about how supposedly vegetative patients could understand, or of "miraculous" awakenings by people who doctors were sure would never react consciously again. Bobby, Terri Schiavo's brother, has noticed that whatever the condition of the patient whose story is being told, the reports all have a common sub theme--the awakening, comprehension, etc. has nothing to do with Terri, meaning it was right to dehydrate her to death. It is as these reports, to quote Shakespeare, "doth protest too much," as if there is a subliminal realization that a terrible injustice was done to her.

The latest almost unbelievable example is in an otherwise interesting and important (and long) piece in the New Yorker, byline Jerome Groopman. After describing how supposedly unconscious people have been misdiagnosed, the author quotes an unnamed neuroscientist about Terri. From the story:
A neuroscientist showed me a video on the Internet of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who spent fifteen years in what most doctors agree was a vegetative state--tests revealed almost no activity in her cortex--and whose death, in 2005, provoked fierce debate over the rights of severely brain-damaged patients. (Schiavo died after the Supreme Court rejected her parents' appeal of a judge's decision approving her husband's request that her feeding tube be removed. An autopsy showed extensive brain damage.) In the video, a man's voice can be heard praising Schiavo for opening her eyes in response to his instructions, and the neuroscientist told me that he was impressed until he muted the sound. "With the sound off, it is clear that her movements are random," the neuroscientist said. "But, with the voice-over, it is easy to make a misdiagnosis. (My emphasis.)
The above stills are from the video in question. It deeply touched my heart and it is seared forever in my memory. In that video, Terri is asked by the examiner to open her eyes. At first, nothing. Then, within ten or so seconds, her eyes flicker, she opens them, and then opens them so wide her forehead wrinkles. It is clearly an intentional response to the question.

But if you turn the sound off, there is no question to hear--and voila, her opening her eyes with clear intention can now be dismissed as merely "random movement." But a random movement under those circumstances would be to move her head from side to side or lick or lips. But when she opened her eyes, and so intently, precisely as requested, you have to work hard to make it "random." So, to make sure we don't see the terrible wrong that was done to her, we just turn off the sound.

As I said, unbelievable. But do read the larger piece. It is well worth the time.


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