Terri Schiavo: What Her Story Means to the Rest of Us

I’ve posted before on the Terri Schiavo story; while I did not want to jump on the news of her death in the early hours, there are some things that need to be said.

First of all, I think everyone who is even aware of who Terri Schiavo was would agree that what happened to her and her family is terribly sad. I think everybody also agrees that no individual would want his or her fate to play out the way Terri’s did – in the courts, litigated by dueling members of one’s own family.

What was never entirely clear in this case was what Terri herself would have wanted. The primary (essentially, the only) evidence that she would not have wanted to live in her post-collapse condition (what that was we will deal with momentarily) was the testimony of Michael Schiavo. Unfortunately, even Judge George Greer (the primary judge in all the Schiavo hearings) recognized that it was highly unlikely Michael’s interests were not at odds with Terri’s. Don’t forget, when thinking about this case, that Terri Schiavo’s condition was not terminal. That is, the patient in question was not somebody suffering horribly from a terminal illness, or even somebody who required life support (artificial circulation or respiration, provided by machines). She simply required feeding through a tube, as she was not able to swallow. The decision to remove her feeding tube was not a decision to “let her die,” but a conscious choice to kill her, just as surely as a parent who denies food to a baby would be guilty of murder.

What I think should be abundantly clear in this case is that nobody would choose to die of starvation. All of the nonsense spoken by Michael Schiavo and his attorney, George Felos, aside, death by starvation is horrific, both for the one who experiences it and for any who observe it. The medical symptoms have all been listed in various places ad nauseum, so I will not repeat them; suffice it to say that the death Terri died was one of the most horrible, painful, and gruesome deaths possible. I’m not sure why death by starvation and dehydration is even a legal option for ending someone’s life, anyway, regardless of the diagnosed condition. (I do realize that the body rejects nourishment in the end stages of some terminal illnesses; this was not one of those cases.)

One of the points that has been in contention is whether or not Terri could feel pain at the end. The two competing diagnoses for Terri’s condition were “persistent vegetative state” and “minimally conscious” – in the former, she would not be able to feel pain, while in the latter, she would. At the end, though, there were doctors standing by to administer morphine and other painkillers, in case Terri felt pain. In other words, the medical authorities were prepared to continue depriving Terri Schiavo of food, thereby killing her, even if and when evidence arose that cast serious doubt on the diagnosis of her condition.

Think about that.

Whatever one thinks about the actions and inactions by the Florida legislature, the U.S. Congress, Jeb Bush, George W. Bush, and others, what happened in the last few weeks should give us all pause. Our courts ordered a woman who could have maintained a pain-free life for many years to be systematically starved, rather than letting her live out her life, which may or may not have included some enjoyment and certainly included less suffering that her death. Meanwhile, our executive officials stood by, wringing their hands. Remember, the judiciary has no power to actually enforce its rulings; that is the responsibility of the executive branch (all police forces and law enforcement officers report to the executive branch, not to a judge), yet the chief executives of a state and of the nation let the judiciary claim absolute power in this case.

I worry about our nation. The moral and legal distances are surprisingly small between starving a severely brain-damaged woman and doing the same to a baby with Down’s Syndrome, from there to eliminating the terminally ill, from there to eliminating all those who don’t fit a given societal ideal, and from there to a Final Solution for all these problems. How many Poles foresaw Auschwitz in 1933? Not enough, to be sure. I hope our generation pays attention to the signs of our times, lest we fall victims to our own “progress.”

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