It is easy for those who believe Terri Schiavo should be “allowed to die” to dismiss their opponents as religious zealots who are inflicting their Biblical viewpoint on a defenseless woman.
”Oh my God, we really are in a theocracy,” Maureen Dowd rabidly frothed in a March 24 New York Times column on Washington’s involvement in the Schiavo case. “Are the Republicans so obsessed with maintaining control over all branches of government, and are the Democrats so emasculated about not having any power, that they are willing to turn the nation into a wholly owned subsidiary of the church?”
The Independent opined thusly in a March 26 staff editorial from London: “While it is impossible not to feel sympathy for what Ms Schiavo’s family has been going through, there is a strong sense that her case has been hijacked. The interference in this case by the Republican-dominated Congress–and President Bush himself–was almost certainly intended to curry favour with the evangelical right, for whom Ms Schiavo has become a cause celebre. The same is no doubt true of the significant involvement of the Florida governor and reputed presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush. The last US election demonstrated just how significant Christian conservatism is within the Republican party. The Schiavo case has to be seen through this prism.”
Former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal ghoulishly penned these words in the British newspaper, the Guardian, last Thursday: “As in tribal cultures, a confederacy of shamans–Bush, Frist and DeLay–have appeared to conduct rites of necrophiliac spiritualism. Only the shamans can interpret for the dying and control their spirits hovering between heaven and earth.”
While people of faith have advocated keeping Terri Schiavo alive, this cause is not just a Religious Right cavalcade. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the face of America’s Religious Left, traveled Tuesday to Pinellas Park, Florida to be with Mary and Bob Schindler, Terri’s mother and father.
“It’s about the one lost sheep,” Jackson told reporters yesterday morning outside the Hospice House Woodside assisted-living facility where Schiavo has been denied food and water for 13 days. “It’s about everybody matters. Everybody matters. It’s about red, yellow, brown, black, and white. We are all precious in God’s sight.”
One need not belong to the Religious Right or the Religious Left to think Terri Schiavo should be renourished, rehydrated, and allowed to live. I am a Deist. I believe God is or was like Johnny Planetseed. He created the universe, walked away, and ain’t coming back. My view is that there are numerous reasons why the nonreligious and even nonbelievers should side with Terri’s parents’ wishes to keep her here on Earth among the living.
‐The key issue is consent. If it were clear that Terri Schiavo truly wanted to perish, her right to die should be inviolable, in my opinion. But absent consent, an individual’s right to die swiftly devolves into another person’s right to kill.
The notion that Terri’s slow dehydration and starvation are what she wants rests on hearsay evidence, at best.
“She never expressed anything like that to our family or friends,” Terri’s mother said last May. “The only people who heard that were her husband, and his brother, and sister-in-law.”
“First of all, it was a series of casual remarks that her husband and her husband’s siblings alleged they heard–so they are parties and interested,” attorney, consumer activist, and Green-party presidential nominee Ralph Nader recently said. “We have no way of knowing that she wants this done at all, or might have changed her mind from the position that she may–or may not–have articulated as a young woman.”
Nader adds: “It’s one thing to have consent when the patient is overwhelmed with ventilators, and dialysis, and heart pumps, but it’s quite another when there are non-heroic ministrations–in this case simply a feeding and water tube–and not having explicit consent or even credible consent–in ending her life.”
Nader calls this situation “court-imposed homicide.” He continues: “There are police in her room 24 hours a day, and if her mother would come and dab her parched lips with a moist sponge, her mother would be arrested and taken away. That’s how barbaric the local scene has become. And that introduces a coarseness throughout our society that is totally preventable, uncalled for, and inappropriate under the rule of law.”
‐Second, it is a travesty that Michael Schiavo remains Terri’s guardian. Unlike, say, Nancy Reagan who faithfully and lovingly stood beside Ronald Reagan as he plunged deeper into the abyss of Alzheimer’s Syndrome before dying last June 5, Michael Schiavo found another woman. He adulterously moved in and fathered two children with her. He now is in a common-law marriage with her. In essense, he’s a bigamist. This is a four-alarm conflict of interest. Schiavo should have lost his legal standing in this case the second his common-law marriage commenced.
Despite his wedding vows to stay with Terri “in sickness and in health,” as couples routinely promise, it is not shocking that he eventually grew lonely and sought the companionship of another able-bodied human being. What is unforgivable is that Michael Schiavo did not release his grip on Terri’s life and let her parents assume her care, something for which they have begged for over a decade.
‐Third, this raises the question of why Michael Schiavo so vigorously insists on putting his wife down like a dog at the pound. He claims, of course, that this is what she wants. His detractors suspect, however, that he may bear at least some responsibility for her current condition. Perhaps to dispel those thoughts, Mr. Schiavo agreed Monday to allow an autopsy on Terri whenever she passes away.
Terri Schiavo’s friends lately have detailed what they call Michael Schiavo’s abuse of her while they lived together. The day before the February 25, 1990, collapse that prompted her present state, one friend recalls speaking with what she described as a very worried Terri who, in turn, became terrified when Michael exploded after she spent $80 on hair treatment.
In a September 2003 deposition, Carla Iyer, one of Terri’s nurses, claims she heard Michael Schiavo ask: “Can’t you do anything to accelerate her death?” and “When is that bitch gonna die?” After Terri’s health waned, Iyer said that he exclaimed, “I’m going to be rich!” then discussed plans to buy a car, boat, and a European vacation with a trust fund dedicated to her medical care. Much of that money never went to Terri’s care. Denied proper dental attention by Michael, for instance, she has had to have several decayed teeth extracted.
Then there is the troubling matter of a bone scan Dr. W. Campbell Walker conducted on Terri on March 5, 1991. Dr. Michael Baden, former New York City medical examiner, reviewed it and discussed it with Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Sustern on October 24, 2003. As Dr. Baden said, “the bone scan describes her having a head injury…and head injury can lead to the ‘vegetative state’ that Mrs. Schiavo is in now.” The 1991 scan “does show evidence that there are other injuries, other bone fractures that are in a healing stage [in 1991].” Baden believed those wounds could have resulted from “some kind of trauma. The trauma could be from an auto accident, the trauma could be from a fall, or the trauma could be from some kind of beating that she obtained from somebody somewhere.” He added: “It’s something that should have been investigated in 1991.”
“This whole claim that Michael somehow abused Terri is totally false,” Mr. Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, said last May. “It was considered by the court at a hearing and rejected.”
So who tells the truth here? If federal judges had obeyed the law Congress passed and President Bush signed on March 21, a de novo review might have explored these allegations, as well as medical questions, such as the fact that Terri never was given an MRI and has not been re-diagnosed with modern equipment. (Michael Schiavo repeatedly has blocked this, too). Instead, in an institutional Bronx cheer, federal courts from Tampa to Washington, D.C. defied the explicit intent of the legislative and executive branches, refused to examine these matters, and green-lighted Terri’s ongoing starvation.
“We have watched as this woman, whose only crime is that she is disabled, is tortured to death by judges, all the way to the Supreme Court,” columnist Nat Hentoff complains in the March 29 Village Voice. Hentoff, who calls himself “an atheist,” clearly is sickened by Terri’s mistreatment, which he calls “the longest public execution in American history.”
‐Fourth, even if Terri could not improve to the point where she could speak intelligently with her loved ones, is that so wrong? The reasonable possibility exists that she could be rehabilitated to the stage where she could be as “viable” as a child with Downs Syndrome. Such children are not especially glib, but no one says we should kill them…yet. Even if Terri only could stare at a TV or listen to music for hours, she would be no less “viable” than tens of millions of Americans who do this every night, to Madison Avenue’s delight.
‐Finally, if it were true that Terri must die, wouldn’t it be more humane to give her a huge shot of cyanide to accelerate her death rather than prolong this for everyone, especially her, over 12 days or more? Those who speed Terri’s demise also should explain how it is that she feels “stable, peaceful, and calm,” as attorney George Felos assures us, yet she is being injected with morphine.
Perhaps grasping the disposability with which Terri is being treated, Eleanor Smith–a self-professed agnostic, liberal, lesbian–held a “Feed Terri” sign while she told Reuters from her wheelchair: “At this point I would rather have a right-wing Christian decide my fate than an ACLU member.”
“There are issues in this case that well-meaning and intelligent people on both sides can disagree with and have to think seriously about,” says Ed Hudgins, executive director of the Objectivist Center. He describes himself as “an atheist and a humanist in the Aristotelian tradition.” He adds: “I hope this case focuses people’s attention on the importance of living life and flourishing while you have it, and on getting everything you can out of this wonderful condition we call conscious life.”
For non-believers, this case has little to do with God. One need not be religious to side with Mr. and Mrs. Schindler.
I fear that the mere presence of giant crucifixes, priests dressed like Medieval friars, people praying with outstretched arms–as important, meaningful, and admirable as all that may be–has shuttered the hearts and minds of many secular people and nonbelievers who might sympathize with Terri Schiavo, were her supporters clad in black turtlenecks and equipped with decaf lattes and I-pods brimming with techno-trance music. As best they can be ascertained, the facts of this case show that, even for those of us who only like churches for their architecture, Terri’s fight is our fight, too.
–Deroy Murdock is a New York-based syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.