In the current battle over whether to remove the feeding tube from Florida woman Terri Schiavo, the basic positions are:
- She is in a permanent vegetative state; no she's not.
- She is unconscious and does not react to stimuli; yes she does.
- She will never get any better; yes she will.
- She would not have wanted to be kept on a feeding tube; you don't know that.
The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that the husband is creepy. Terri's parents are fighting like mad to keep Terri alive. The husband, Michael Schiavo, is living with another woman with whom he has one child and is expecting another. Yet he has mounted a monumental crusade to have Terri's feeding tube removed.
Terri is not brain-dead and requires no extraordinary means to be kept alive. She is breathing, her heart is pumping, her organs are functioning. All she needs is food and water. (Of course, all three are technically true of Kate Moss, too.) But her husband wants to starve her to death. As Larry King asked him, why not "walk away"?
That is the eternal mystery of this case. Assuming everything Michael says about Terri is true – she has no consciousness, she will never recover, and she would not want to live with feeding tubes – well, then, she's not in pain, bored, angry or upset. Dennis Kucinich has been in a persistent vegetative state for 20 years – how about not feeding him? Why is Michael Schiavo so obsessed with pulling Terri's feeding tube? Why can't he just walk away?
Michael's answer to Larry King was this: "Why should I, Larry? This is Terri's wish. This is Terri's choice." As King pointed out, Terri's alleged "wish" was not memorialized anywhere in writing, only in Michael's memory. Michael responded to this point by invoking the courts: "It's been decided for six years of litigation that this was Terri's wish."
I note that "six years of litigation" is not enough to end the lives of child-molesting serial killers on death row. The same people who want to kill Terri believe that death-row cases are never final, no matter how many courts and juries have spoken over how many decades.
Moreover, it's not as if court after court has heard testimony on Terri's wishes and have all unanimously agreed that Terri would have chosen death. One lone Florida circuit court judge, George Greer, credited Michael's testimony, finding "clear and convincing" evidence that Terri said she would not want to be kept alive on feeding tubes. Because Judge Greer was acting as the finder of fact, his finding is essentially unreviewable by any other court. Even the notorious Florida Supreme Court – which has a history of jumping in to try to save a dead man – refused to review the case.
Judge Greer's finding on Terri's wishes may be immune from legal review, but it's not immune from criticism. He's a finder of fact – he's not God. A few years ago, Judge Greer found that Helene Ball McGee did not have reasonable cause to believe domestic violence was imminent and denied her an order of protection. Two weeks later, Mrs. McGee was stabbed to death by her husband. So judges can make mistakes.
Judge Greer's pivotal "finding of fact" in the Schiavo case determining a life-or-death issue is based on something Terri allegedly said after watching a TV show. Michael didn't know his wife was bulimic, but he distinctly remembered Terri's remarks about a TV show. (It was an episode of "Melrose Place," during which she said that Heather Locklear's shoes were "to die for.")
After watching "Bambi," I'm against deer hunting. Then I go out the next day and order venison. Maybe we could have a higher standard of proof before the government orders a woman to die.
Despite Michael's insistence that he has a vivid memory of Terri expressing her wishes regarding death, note this exchange on "Larry King Live":
KING: I have a 35-year-old daughter. I've never asked her this question. I don't know if she has a living will. I hope she does. But if she doesn't, I don't know the answer to the question. Because most 35-year-olds, I guess, don't talk about it.
SCHIAVO: Nobody talks about death, Larry.
Michael apparently forgot to add – except for that one night I remember so clearly, Larry, when my wife, Terri, talked to me about death and expressed her firmly held desire not to be kept alive on a feeding tube.
If you start making damning admissions on "Larry King Live" – with your lawyer sitting next to you, no less – you have a problem. Larry King can interview Louis Farrakhan and make him look like a charmer.
As even the New York Times admits, Michael did not recall Terri's clearly stated desire to be taken off life support until after the million-dollar settlement was paid, most of it going for Terri's medical costs – and the remainder to her husband.
What offhand comments might Terri have made if she had read in the Baltimore Sun about Rod Brandner, who indicated that he was coming out of a coma by squeezing his son's hand in response to questions less than two hours before his life support system was to be turned off?
Or what if she had read the Associated Press news story on Chris Trickle, who lost 5 percent of his brain when he was shot in the head, but later came out of a nine-month coma to breathe on his own, eat three meals a day, and tell his girlfriend he loved her?
What would Terri have said after hearing that Gregory Dygas' mother refused to believe the doctors' assurances that Gregory was brain-dead and should be taken off life support, and six months later watched as Gregory sat up, talked and watched television?
What offhand remarks might Terri have made after reading about Terry Wallis, the Canadian man who just last summer awoke from a 19-year coma?
Or how about that case in Minnesota last year where the guy who'd been in a coma for decades suddenly reappeared and ran for Senate? What was his name? Walter Mondale?
(Note for the record: I want heroic measures taken to keep me alive, and I demand the immediate arrest of anyone trying to remove my life support.)
In the absence of a living will, I would think the courts ought to be erring on the side of life. But short of that, couldn't we at least all agree that the courts should not defer to the pull-the-plug demands from anyone who:
- expresses an unseemly enthusiasm for another person's death;
- was the only person present when the incident leading to the persistent vegetative state occurred;
- stands to make money off the person's death; or
- is wearing a "W.W.C.V.B.D.?" (what would Claus von Bulow do?) bracelet?