Monday, March 21, 2005

Terri Schiavo: Victim or pawn?

I am really torn down the middle on this whole mess.

For those who are not aware of the specifics, at issue is the life of Terri Schiavo, a young woman in Florida who suffered a heart failure in 1990, and has been in what may or may not be a Persistent vegetative State (PVS) since then.

What is at issue is the extent of her injury and disability and whether she should be allowed to die with dignity.

Her family wishes to prolong her life (she requires no life support, just a feeding tube) so she can continue rehabilitation and possibly recover. They claim, and apparently have video to support, that she is not in a PVS as defined by the law, and is therefore entitled to medical treatment and rehabilitation under FL Law They further allege that Terri's husband Michael has denied her the rehabilitation that doctors have recommended, that Terri was awarded money designated for treatment which Michael has used for legal fees and more. The also accuse him of wanting her dead so he can remarry.

They cling to hope of her revival, point to signs of her awareness, and stand steadfast in their belief she could recover, but sadly those things could be imagined and unrealistic, it is not uncommon for optimistic family members to imagine more progress then there is. Miracles happen however, and who is to say she could not recover? Last time I looked, God is bigger then all of us.

Michael claims he is merely acting on Terri's wishes, that she did not want to be kept alive in these circumstances. While he has spousal rights and the law on his side, Michael's conduct is not leading to a lot of confidence. The accusation that he wants her dead to be able to remarry, while very prejudicial and assumptive, is also possible under the circumstances and if he is deliberately refusing beneficial treatment, then it is troubling.

On a medical standpoint, there is a significant discrepancy between the doctors testifying for the husband those for the parents, and that needs to be resolved. I also think some of the other accusations need to be addressed as well, particularly his withholding possibly beneficial therapy.

What really bothers me is this In order for Michael to "carry out her wishes" he has to order the caregivers to withhold her feeding tube, essentially forcing her to starve to death, a process which could take from several days to weeks to complete. To me this is different from an order not to resuscitate, which Michael placed on her in 1993. Since she does not require life support, that is the only way to make it happen, and that just seems overly cruel to me. I am not sure I buy the argument that starving her is letting nature take its course. That is too much like euthanasia, and as such seems to be against FL law as well.

Most of this case hinges on Michaels insistence that this is what Terri wanted. There is no declaration of intent or living will signed by her, and (reputedly) no friends or family members have stepped forward to declare what her wishes were. Had this been her wishes, I would have expected someone else to know, but on the other hand its not uncommon for the spouse to be privy to things of nature.

Also, it bothers me that in our society, a person on death row (who is presumed to be guilty and deserves to die) has more rights and more legal standing to stay alive then Terri does (a person who is without argument innocent) and will receive a more humane death then Terri (though again, I have a hard time supporting Euthanasia laws).

To that end, President Bush just signed a law allowing a Federal Court to review the issue, which I don't necessarily oppose, though I dislike government intervention. But while I hate the prospect of an already intrusive government intruding in private affairs, I think this may be a case that justifies it.

In closing, I heard a couple of things last night that just don't make sense to me.

Terri, it seems, is Catholic. When her feeding tube was removed in 2003, she was denied her Last Rights and Holy Communion. I don't get that. What on earth is served by that bright idea? They claim its just following orders that she not be fed, but a small crumb of a moistened wafer placed in her mouth? Its not a friggin Big Mac for crying out loud. (The Catholic Church opposes her starvation, by the way.)

The news also reports that Michael has petitioned for and been granted the right to have her cremated and her ashes taken out of state against her parent's request for a Catholic burial. Again, what is possibly served by that except a nice wave goodbye (with one finger) from Michael to her parents.

The whole case is awash with questionable motives, from the right to life and euthanasia crowds both seeking to use it as precedent, to politicians grandstanding and to the previous mentioned motivations and accusations of the family against the husband, and his complaints about them.

And in the middle is Terri. Living on the edge of dying, and unable to say what she wants.

All I can say, is in the absence of all else, I would prefer we err on the side of life if we err at all.

May God have mercy on Terri.