Terri Schiavo died yesterday, ending 15 years of litigation, family heartache and a national debate over the right to life.
In 1990, Schiavo suffered brain damage after her heart briefly stopped beating, which was caused by complications related to an eating disorder. Her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, requested to have her feeding tube removed — as per Terri’s alleged requests to him — when she did not recover from a vegetative state. Being that Terri’s wishes were never put into writing and could therefore be misconstrued, her parents fought every level of the judicial system in a vain attempt to prolong her life.
What should have remained a family dilemma quickly escalated into a national melee. From the heart-wrenching photos of Terri degenerating in her finals days on the nightly news, to the two-cent commentaries by everyone from religious pundits to right-to-life interest groups, a complete media circus ensued.
It is no surprise that politicos realized the marketability of such an incendiary case and they latched onto it like mosquitoes hungry for constituent ratings. The most obvious pro-lifers were also the most vocal: President George W. Bush and his governor brother Jeb. For the past few years, Jeb has tried numerous times to keep Terri alive, and his efforts culminated in the audacious and unconstitutional piece of legislation dubbed “Terri’s Law” in 2003.
His brother proved even worse. George W. left his vacation conspicuously just in time to intervene and pass a law that allowed Schiavo’s parents to take their case to federal court. The president explained his decision by stating that it is “wisest to always err on the side of life.” Err on the side of life? That sounds a bit odd coming from the same man who, as governor of Texas, led his state in the executions of 152 prison inmates. And let’s not forget the completely anti-life Futile Care Law he enacted in 1999 — legislation that allows hospitals to discontinue life-sustaining care if they deem it “futile,” even if family members object.
Just a few weeks ago, Sun Hudson, a 6-month old with a fatal form of dwarfism, was allowed to die in Texas because of this legislation. Despite his mother’s objections, Sun was taken off his feeding tube at doctors’ behest.
Interestingly, the Bushes, expensive doctors, experts and news media hoopla were absent. Perhaps this case just wasn’t ratings worthy?
There are tens of thousands of people in America living in a persistent vegetative state, and most of their families will never have the political muscle or financial resources to undertake the exhaustive journey of Terri Schiavo’s parents. If the government desires to save lives, then these lives must be treated with respect and attention too.
I, like most people, am not sure whether justice was served in this case. On the books, it was — Terri’s legal guardian ordered out the death wish that she supposedly requested. As I say this though, I cannot ignore the nagging part of my conscience. The verbal instructions Terri gave to her husband were given under a hypothetical context — who knows what she might have desired knowing her true fate? But law dictates that she die of a cruel, government-mandated starvation. What type of civilized society sentences people to death, especially when family members exist that are emotionally and financially willing to take care of them? Miracles may not be common, but they do happen. Should we create a precedent that quashes hope?
I do not know.
And perhaps that’s the most unnerving aspect of the Schiavo case — the uncertainty that surrounds the government’s jurisdiction, or lack thereof, over life and death. People may be clamoring to create iron-clad living wills, but the grim reality is that nothing is ever predictable or promised.
Krishnamurthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.