Weighing in on Terri Schiavo

Since this poor woman's struggle has become a lightning rod of commentary, criticism and analysis for people across the political spectrum, I've decided against my prior commitment to remain silent on the issue. I've been writing this post over a period of about two weeks, trying to clarify my thoughts on the situation. Ms. Schiavo has now passed away. The debate, which has transcended her, lives on.

Although I may not wholly agree with their position, I can understand and sympathize with those who believe, as a matter of principle, that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should remain in place. I am bothered by the fact that she left no explicit written instructions in the form of a "living will." What disgusts me is the blatant use of this woman and her family for political gain. In their vulnerability, both sides of the family are willing to allow lawyers and politicians to take up their cause. No family member in this sad episode can hardly be blamed for their position. Like the millions of other people following the news, I don't know either the Schiavo or the Schindlers. I've heard both sides praised and vilified. How am I supposed to judge who is right? My conclusion--I'm not supposed to judge who is right. Of course, this does not mean that I don't have some thoughts on the situation.

I've followed the case periodically as it has progressed through the courts over the past decade. Every once in awhile it would pop onto the headline news, of which I watch entirely too much. My gut reaction has historically been to side with Michael Schiavo's position--to allow Terri's feeding tube to be removed. My understanding is that Terri left no written instructions (as most of us don't) about her wishes should she be in the situation that she indeed now finds herself. Thus, the law, and morality I would say, dictates that her "legal guardian" be allowed to speak on her behalf. Mr. Schiavo says that Terri would not want to live via a "machine" and would want the feeding tube removed. His opponents, including Terri's parents, say that Terri has a chance of recovery, and that she would want to preserve her chance by having the feeding tube remain in place.

What a tragic and heart wrenching story as it is, even without the media attention, and now Congressional attention that surrounds it. Neither the parents or the husband can hardly be blamed, and should not be blamed, for their strong stance in what they believe. Taken at face value (and I have no reason to believe otherwise, national punditry notwithstanding), both Michael and Terri's parents are pushing to enforce what they truly believe to be her wishes. Anyone who assigns guilt or blame to any of these family members is being hypocritical, arrogant and intrusive. That being said, the feeding tube, quite obviously, either has to remain in, or be removed, both options at odds with the other family member's wishes.

As I noted above, I have always instinctively agreed with Mr. Schiavo's position. However, as I thought about it more deeply, I came to the conclusion that, without explicit written instructions from Ms. Schiavo herself, her feeding tube should not be removed. This is because, even though Mr. Schiavo is her legal guardian, we have no way of knowing for sure whether Ms. Schiavo indeed told him that she would not want her life extended by extraordinary means, as he promises she did. It's not that I distrust him. However, I think if there is any doubt whatsoever about Terri's wishes, the safest moral route would be to assume that she would want to live. Furthermore, what are the scenarios that Mr. and Ms. Schiavo discussed. Was Ms. Schiavo talking about a feeding tube, a ventilator, or any machine that would prolong her life? Nobody knows. As tragic as the case is, I think that society does indeed have an obligation to preserve her life in the absence of explicit instructions from her. For me, this represents a long and thought-out change of opinion on the matter. One of the primary lessons needs to be learned from this case is to leave explicit instructions (i.e. living wills) about the measures that we would like taken to preserve our lives if the situation arises for us.

Like many people, I am aghast at the media attention and government "interference" taking place in the lives of these otherwise ordinary people. Many people have taken up the Schiavo case as their cause celeb for broader issues. Sadly, opportunistic congresspeople have exploited the case. My opinion is that the federal government has no place in the case and I am disappointed that they are trying to intervene, even though I support the extension of Ms. Schiavo's life. As the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. I find myself arguing for the same results as those protesting outside of Ms. Schiavo's hospice. This bothers me. I don't agree with the strategy or the tactics of most of those protesting. This issue, to me, transcends politics. Sadly, as I noted above, it is so obviously being exploited by some for political reasons.

Writing about this issue is hard, because even as I write my opinions, I am questioning them. This further reinforces my belief that the matter should be handled privately, or at least locally, and not through the U.S. Federal government. Mr. Delay, Mr. Frist and Mr. Bush are not being consistent with other positions that they have taken in the past regarding the "culture of life" about which they currently preach. Even though I agree with the result they are trying to obtain, I have lost respect for them because of the manner in which they have presented themselves, and their blatant hypocrisy, throughout the ordeal.

The U2 song "Miracle Drug", from their most recent album, reportedly is about a young man that had a disease in which he was unable to express any of his thoughts. Then, a drug was developed in which he was able to communicate, and all of a sudden all of these thoughts that had been bottled up inside him were able to be expressed. Not the cleanest parallel to Terri Schiavo, but similar, in my humble opinion. What if a drug were developed that allowed Ms. Schiavo to communicate? Of course, the prevailing scientific view is that she is "brain dead", and that she has nothing to communicate. But, what if science caught up with her disease and was able to repair her brain?

3/25/05: E.J. Dionne provided his thoughts. As is often the case, Mr. Dionne puts eloquent words to what I am thinking myself. He captures the bothersome aspect of the hypocrisy swirling around from all sides. As he notes, Mr. Bush's statement to "error on the side of life" is a noble and righteous moral guidance. The problem is that such words ultimately become cliche and cheap when a significant portion of other policy quite obviously does NOT error on the side of life. In other words, Mr. Dionne is saying that it is a pity that Mr. Bush, Mr. Delay and Mr. Frist do not practice what they preach.

Anymore, I often have a gut reaction to disagree with any position staked out by the religious right. This reaction is something that I am trying to overcome. It is often not the position of the religious right that I disagree with, but the strategy and tactics of those that preach religious conservatism. In most cases, I become as guilty as those that I criticize by criticizing the people instead of the behavior. At fleeting moments, I become aware of this, and I am ashamed. I am working on improving.


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