Politics & Policy

Basic Human Care

Food and water.

Although a longtime supporter of Terri Schiavo’s right to basic human care, I learned a great deal about her situation between late Sunday night when I appeared on Hardball and Monday noon when I was on MSNBC’s Coast to Coast. In the span of about 14 hours, I realized two things: First, most Americans are not familiar with the details of Terri’s situation; and second, as they become familiar with those details, they find her case resonates with their own experiences of caring for loved ones.

The mainstream media continues to use such phrases as “life support,” “coma,” “dying,” and “persistent vegetative state.” Let’s get something clear: Terri was not on life support. She breathes on her own and her brain can still keep her organs functioning. Terri wasn’t dying any more than the rest of us until her feeding and hydration tube was pulled on Friday. At that point, she started to die, just like you and I would if we were denied food and water for an extended period of time. Even those who willingly fast generally take water. But Terri isn’t even allowed ice chips for her cracking lips. And no mention has been made of pain relief for the agony that accompanies death by dehydration and starvation.

Nor is Terri in a coma. It’s not even clear that she’s in a persistent vegetative state, since she’s never had the benefit of diagnostic exams such as an MRI or PET. The video and audio tapes of her indicate some awareness–an awareness reminiscent of a newborn infant who can’t yet clearly see, comprehend, or speak. Disability or lack of ability are not grounds for starvation.

Nonetheless, most people don’t know these facts. Chris Matthews focused on the notion that Terri’s husband Michael loves her and has a right to make even these “tough” decisions for her. Matthews’s questioning made it clear that he’s not aware of Terri’s physical and mental state, as he was comfortable using terms like “brain dead” to describe her.

Ron Reagan, one of Coast to Coast’s hosts, alluded to a right to die and seemed to follow Michael Schiavo’s line about privacy and non-interference from the government. But after my segment, I spoke with some MSNBC staff in the hallway. It was a friendly and sympathetic conversation; they were recalling stories from their own experiences. They mentioned a colleague who knew a good friend who’d recently awakened from a coma of more than ten years. One woman recounted her experiences with two relatives who suffered serious illnesses before dying. In each story, it was clear that my interlocutors were a bit in awe of the things we can’t always predict, especially how life will play out for each of us, how someone can seem so close to death and yet still “come back,” and how people can communicate their very being even when unable to speak or act coherently.

Simply put, when people hear the details of Terri’s case, they start to identify with it in some way. After all, a lot of people have experienced the prolonged illness of a loved one.

Sure, the polls are indicating that a strong majority of Americans side with Michael Schiavo. But at the same time, politicians have been hearing from constituents who feel strongly that Terri deserves basic human treatment in the form of food and water. Politicians know that those who actually contact them represent a greater voting force than the abstract populace of unscientific polls. These are people who have taken the time to become acquainted with the facts and the questions surrounding Terri’s death sentence.

As the facts become known to individuals, one by one, there’s a general understanding that this situation requires more attention before Terri’s life is taken from her. That’s exactly what motivated President Bush to interrupt his vacation in Texas to come back to D.C. and sign Terri’s law. “In cases like this one,” he said, “where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. This presumption is especially critical for those like Terri Schiavo who live at the mercy of others.”

It might seem a far reach to involve the federal government, but the fact remains that it’s not even Michael Schiavo who has sentenced Terri to death–although he has clearly indicated that his desire is such. No, in Terri’s case, it’s the courts that have sentenced her to die. In each decision, a judge has set a time and date for her to stop receiving food and water.

Yet Terri is no criminal, and she’s not brain dead. She isn’t even in a coma. She suffers from a trauma-induced disability which has left her disabled. While the courts and the pundits seem willing to be led by Michael Schiavo and his attorney George Felos, Terri’s story clearly resonates with Americans who hear the details, including many of our politicians and our congressional leadership. Unfortunately, it may be too late for Terri as she faces another day without food and water–a death by starvation that Michael calls a “natural” death.

Pia de Solenni is the director of life and women’s issues at the Family Research Council.

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