Terri Schiavo Is Dead ... And What Remains

Terri Schiavo is dead. Whatever happens in death—resting in peace, meeting one's maker, or nothing—has now happened for her. I hope her family members—on both sides—can find their peace. I hope her husband is not hounded or hunted by extremists. I hope her blood relatives can move on. But I don't think we should forget how certain scoundrels crassly exploited this family conflict. No doubt, some of the supporters of Schiavo's parents were moved by sincere concerns and principles. But the motives of the politicians and crusaders who rushed in can be called into question. I did a roundup of the hypocrisy a few days ago, and Tom DeLay, of course, was included. But I did not bash him for playing God, which is what he did yesterday. Responding to the news report that DeLay and his family withheld life-sustaining care from his father when he was in a coma, DeLay said, "My father was on life support and dying. Schiavo is living and wants to live."

Wants to live? How did DeLay know that? Does he possess insight or psychic powers unknown to the rest of us? The Florida courts ruled that she was in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), which would mean she could not consciously resolve to live. DeLay and the parents challenged that diagnosis. Even if they were right and she was in some state shy of PVS, did that mean she wanted to stay alive? Perhaps in such a state she felt unending pain or discomfort. Perhaps she had some degree of consciousness and still did not want to live in this condition. DeLay could not know her true desires. By claiming he did, he was acting far beyond his authority as majority leader of the House of Representatives. He was bullshitting for partisan gain.

Then this morning, shortly after the death of Terri Schiavo, Randall Terry, the antiabortion activist who became one of the many spokespersons for the Schindler family, was crying on television. "It's unthinkable," he said through the tears. "The fact that Terri did not have her family with her [at the moment of her death] ... is unconceivable." Apparently, Michael, her husband, permitted the Schindlers to see Terri ten or so minutes before her death, but Michael did not let them stay in the room beyond that point. Without knowing all the details, I can only say that it seems unfortunate that Michael Schiavo would not allow the Schindlers to remain at Terri's side. But I find it hard to take Terry's tears seriously. This is a fellow who preaches (his versions of) family values but who was booted out of his church for having an affair and leaving his wife. He also rejected his daughter for being a lesbian. Yet now he cries for the plight of another family, and as he does so he demonizes Michael, suggesting Michael could not bother to be with Terri at the time of his death: "I don't think Michael would leave his common-law wife, come in there and have much grief for Terri." (Friends of Michael say he was with Terri when she died.) So the guy who broke up his own family questions the commitment of a man who could have walked away from his brain-damaged wife and dumped her on her family years ago but who stayed involved for years (and who at first spent years trying to find her effective treatments and therapies). Can you say chutzpah?

There remains much to process in the Schiavo matter. Why did so many Americans become emotionally bound to the case of this woman? Why did they care so much for this one life? Are they as concerned about the lives of civilians killed during military actions in Iraq? Or those who die in the United States because they lack access to quality health care? How far does the "culture of life" extend? (CNN broke from a noontime White House press conference on the release of a new report on WMD intelligence to return to its coverage of the Schiavo story.) George W. Bush and the Republican congressional leaders believed it was necessary for the federal government to intervene in this case, why did they not take further action after the federal courts turned down the Schindlers' appeals? DeLay, for one, argued that the federal court decisions were an arrogant usurpation of power because, in his view, these judges disregarded the law passed by Congress. If that was indeed the case, then shouldn't Congress have appealed those decisions to the Supreme Court or passed another law? But DeLay and the others choose to do nothing—after polls showed their intervention was tremendously unpopular with the American public. So how much did they care about Terri the person as opposed to Terri the issue?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of instances when a feeding tube is removed from a person deemed beyond hope. Do the supporters of the Schindlers, like Jesse Jackson, believe a feeding tube should never be pulled? The Schindler side has described the subsequent death as terribly gruesome. Jackson called it "crude" and "cruel." Does this mean that even someone who signed a living will should not be allowed to meet such a fate? Or, perhaps more to the point, in a case when there is no living will but a guardian makes the decision to withdraw a feeding tube (and there is no conflict among family members), should this option not be permitted? Is Jackson now going to advocate federal and state laws that prohibit the removal of feeding tubes? Does this extend to breathing tubes and other forms of care? There are many ways to keep a person alive. When I heard Jackson discuss the Schiavo case, he focused on the intrinsic value of life. So what then are the guidelines for providing care to people who are comatose, brain-damaged or otherwise severely impaired?

Perhaps with Terri Schiavo finally dead, there can be a debate—free of political exploitation and self-serving exaggerations—about these difficult end-of-life issues. But I wouldn't bet on it.

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