Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo

THE US Congress held a very unusual weekend vote to save, at least temporarily, the life of Terri Schiavo, who otherwise would slowly starve to death at the Florida hospice in which she is confined.

Terri collapsed in 1990, leaving her profoundly cognitively disabled. Michael Schiavo, her husband, won a $US1.3million malpractice judgment that included money for her medical care, which he subsequently refused to fund. Along the way he moved in with a woman and had two children. Seven years ago he petitioned the court to remove Terri's feeding tube. He was finally freed to do so on Friday.

Now Congress has passed, and President George W. Bush has signed, legislation allowing the federal courts to review her case. Nothing about it is simple.


The right to die. Virtually no one disputes Terri's right to decide whether to live or die. The problem is, we don't know what she would decide. According to Michael, Terri said she wanted "no tubes". His brother and sister-in-law back his claim, but no one else in her family heard her talk that way. Michael conveniently didn't note her alleged sentiments when requesting money for her rehabilitative care. Further, a former girlfriend says that he admitted that he and Terri never talked about the issue.

Permanent vegetative state. Although Terri is disabled, she may not fit the classic definition of someone typically left to die. Florida law defines a vegetative state as "the absence of voluntary action or cognitive behaviour" and "an inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment". Yet video clips filmed by her family suggest that Terri responds to visitors and events.

Some experts have dismissed the significance of her actions, but neuropsychologist Alexander Gimon concluded that they "are completely inconsistent with a diagnosis of [a] vegetative state". Jay Wolfson, appointed by the court as a guardian at law, argued that she had a "distinct presence" and was responsive to her family. Neurologist William Hammesfahr is equally emphatic: Terri is "alert and responsive to her environment". Hammesfahr, who has aided people with chronic brain injuries, argues: "There are many approaches that would help Terri Schiavo."


Looking after the interests of Terri or Michael? "Michael Schiavo has not been a model husband," observes New York commentator Deroy Murdock. There are claims by Terri's family about his violent nature and questions about the circumstances of her collapse. There are his girlfriends and children with his present live-in. There is his failure to fund rehabilitative care that some doctors say could be effective and his reported comments on how he planned to spend the almost $US1.6 million legal judgment theoretically won for Terri. And there is his extraordinary question to nurse Carla Iyer: "Can't you do anything to accelerate her death?" Iyer, with no apparent stake in the case, says Michael also asked: "When is that bitch going to die?"

Federal-state conflicts. Traditionally, the Republican Party has advocated giving states maximum autonomy to decide issues within their borders. Towards that end, the Republican Congress restricted federal death penalty appeals from state courts. Yet the emergency legislation grants a federal district court in Florida jurisdiction over withholding food from Terri. The provision is limited, but it allows national jurists to trump the Florida courts.

Republican grandstanding. Without doubt, many Republican politicians believe that an injustice has been done to Terri and her family. Yet they are not above using the issue for political advantage. A memo distributed to Republican senators characterised the case as "a great political issue", especially useful in winning support from conservative Christians. It "is a tough issue for Democrats", exulted the memo writer. Ironically, while governor of Texas, Bush signed into law a bill allowing hospitals to end life support if the patient had no means to pay for further care, and further care was thought to be futile.

What will federal judges do? Lawsuits have ranged up and down Florida courts for years. The federal fight could be equally bitter. Terri's parents will seek to reinsert the feeding tube until the case is decided. Michael will push to void the law as unconstitutional. If the court sustains the law, it is likely to hold a hearing on her parents' claim that removing the feeding tube violates her rights. The losing party then will inevitably appeal, as in Florida.
The Schiavo case won't be decided any time soon. There seems to have been a serious miscarriage of justice at the state level. But that bad decision has resulted from the normal operation of the rule of law. Thus, as a matter of principle -- principle normally embraced by Republican legislators and presidents -- the national government should stay out of the case. Setting the precedent of intervening in the very personal legal case of one family is likely to end up doing more harm than good. But there is a simple way to end the legal wrangling. Transfer Terri to the care of her parents and let Michael get on with his life.

There's nothing simple about the case of Terri Schiavo. Whatever happens next, the interruption of her young, vibrant life will remain a tragedy.


Just to compare US Law to Australian Law, a situation as the above would almost never occur, infact i don't think one ever has, in Australia.
The husband is deemed next of kin, and legislation in place to entrench the fact. Now, if by chance the family could prove suspicions re the above $1millon dollars, that this was the reason the hubby wanted his wife switched off, then it would go to court, but it would need to be a strong case, and no way on this earth would federal parliment ever get involved, it would remain a state issue.

11 Comments:

Blogger English Professor said...

An excellent post, Michelle. I, too, support transferring care to Terri's parents. But from your statements, I gather her husband would fight that, because it would mean surrending the money for her care.

A side note: what kind of moron takes up with this guy and has two children with him?

12:49 AM  
Blogger English Professor said...

"A memo distributed to Republican senators characterised the case as "a great political issue", especially useful in winning support from conservative Christians. It "is a tough issue for Democrats", exulted the memo."

Michelle, can you point me toward the original source for this info? Thanks so much!

2:14 AM  
Blogger No_Newz said...

I saw your title and ran for the comments. Not because I have something about Teri I would like to say. Just to say I love you bunches but can not read anymore about this situation. It's just gotten out of control and I've promised myself not to read anymore about it. Have a groovy day!
Lois Lane

2:37 AM  
Blogger Erratic Prophet said...

There is something I've always wondered about situations like this. If it were an animal, doctors would put it to sleep. Also, we don't let criminals suffer. They get lethal injection because it's more humane. Since we're talking about a human, an ill human, we go all over the place about what to do and then starve the person to death. It just never made sense to me. I can only talk about what I would want for me were I in that situation, not what should be done for her. Personally, I'd want a lovely lethal cocktail of drugs injected into me.

3:33 AM  
Blogger Jack the blogger said...

Michelle
Unless god Himself interviens Teri is gonna die. Nothing is being gained by anyone, including Teri, by keeping her alive with the feeding tube. This is unfortunate but true. What caught my eye amoung the comment was the one by erratic prophet "we don't let criminals suffer". The prophet has never been in a prison or could not/would not have maade such a silly remark.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

EP ~ Original source was from the Cato Institute in Washington :)

6:29 AM  
Blogger Erratic Prophet said...

No, Jack, I'm glad to say that I've never been in prison. Nor do I expect to visit one ever. What I meant by that "silly" remark was that we go out of our way to off our criminals in a humane way, yet we'll allow terminally ill-- or, sorry to be blunt, lost causes-- to slowly and very painfully die instead of allowing them to die painlessly and quickly.

7:16 AM  
Blogger riskybiz said...

I'm not going to judge the alleged actions of others.
The parents and the husband have done things that have been questionable.
My thought is what of this pooor woman's dignity, does anyone care?

12:17 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Here is my take on this case. If a person is breathing air and there is any brain activity, then that person is alive and withholding food is inhumane. In the absense of a "living will", the courts should assume the person would want to live. They should err, if they can err, on the side of life.

Obviously, her parents are willing to care for her. Michael should just give it up and allow them to do that.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Ellie said...

One way to speed death for a terminally ill patient who has stopped eating or can no longer feed themselves is to stop intravenous feedings. The patient slips into a genuine coma and dies. They dehydrate.

I do not know how to "feel" about that process. My mother died in just this manner while in hospice care. She had signed a Living Will and had named one of my sisters as her Medical Executor.

The thing that really disturbs me about Terry Shivo's case is that she is not terminally ill, and she apparently has enough brain activity to recognise her parents.

Thinking of the whole death and dying process ties my stomach in knots, no matter the circumstance.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

EP~ Yes, supposedly the million dollars is the bone of contention.
LOL.....there are plenty of morons in this world EP!!

Lois ~ I know i know...every blog i visit, newspaper i open, news channel i watch has something to say about it.

EP ~ I understand your thoughts here. Strange how those states that offer capital punishment usually use lethal injection because its supposedly more humane, yet when it comes to this woman, dignity and compassion are thrown out the window.

Jack ~ I hear you, its so difficult. I am a great believer in euthenasia....only in situations like this one...living wills, and those who are mentally able in deciding for themselves when they have a terminal illness and are pain.

Lisa ~ Agreed, however the million dollars is the issue for him...you see he doesn't get it if he signs over to the parents.

Risky ~ very nicely written, and excellent point....really does anyone care?

Ellie ~ Welcome! :)
Gives me the heeebie geeebies too...death and dying...its the fear of the unknown. As much as we all have our own beliefs re god and a higher being........none of us know.

8:30 PM  

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