To help live or let die

Posted: Mar 23, 2005 12:00 AM

When is a husband not a husband? That's the question that keeps scratching at the back door of the hospice where Terri Schiavo lay slowly dying of starvation through the weekend.

Whatever happens to her now, following an emergency bill early Monday that allowed Schiavo's parents to ask a federal judge to reinsert their daughter's feeding tube, the saga of Terri Schiavo has forced the nation to ask some tough questions.

We can argue endlessly about whether Schiavo's existence passes our own personal muster for "quality of life," and argue we should. What bitter decision is this, to let a woman die? What question more deserving of our sweat and tears?

But the fact that Schiavo's fate has rested in the hands of a man who is her husband in title only is both mystifying and maddening. If we resolve nothing else, some of our energy will be well spent examining the criteria used to determine who is best qualified to protect a disabled person's interests.

Michael Schiavo, who was Terri Schiavo's husband when she suffered a heart attack and severe brain damage 15 years ago, today lives with another woman with whom he has had two children. Except that he has never sought a divorce from Terri - and therefore by law has final say over her life - he is by no normal definition her "husband."

Put another way, we can safely bet that if Terri Schiavo were aware that her husband was parking his shoes under another woman's dust ruffle, she likely would declare her marriage kaput. That Michael Schiavo still has authority to end her life, or "let her die" as we prefer to call it, adds injury to the insult that has become her existence.

Giving the devil his due, Michael Schiavo began fighting this nightmarish battle long ago, insisting that his wife would prefer to die than live in the vegetative state that is her life. He claims she told him as much, though in the absence of witnesses or any written document, who knows? One needn't be a cynic to observe that husbands and wives do not always act in the best interests of their spouses.

The question - why won't Schiavo divorce his wife and let her parents care for her as they have requested? - has no satisfactory answer. Schiavo claims he persists in seeking Terri's demise out of respect for her wishes and to end her suffering. He insists that he stands to gain nothing from her death, noting that there is no life insurance policy.

Instead, he has alleged that Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, are motivated by interest in money from a medical malpractice suit that awarded the Schiavos $1.2 million more than 10 years ago, most of which, Schiavo claims, has been spent on rehabilitation for his wife.

The enmity between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers is no secret. There are enough disagreements between the two families to keep therapists in Volvos for decades. Terri Schiavo might remove the feeding tube herself were she aware of the many peripheral dramas attendant to her fate.

Even granting Michael Schiavo the benefit of the doubt, however, his insistence that Terri be starved to death when her parents want to care for her borders on the bizarre. Speaking as a parent, imagining some future spouse trying to arrange my child's death puts me in mind of a mama grizzly, whose company would be far preferable to mine should the little outlaw prevail. (Note to self: Clip column for rehearsal dinner toast).

Terri Schiavo's life surely is not what any of us would choose, but it is life - of a sort. She breathes on her own, opens her eyes, responds to stimulation, seems to smile at her mother, makes noises in response to others' voices. Is this a life worth living? I don't know, but it is living, whereas withholding sustenance surely guarantees the opposite.

The fact that the nation has become unhinged over these proceedings is a source of some solace. We should find "letting die" troublesome.

There may be no miracles this week for Terri Schiavo, not least of which would be her husband's overdue granting of a divorce. But the rest of us could do worse when in doubt to err on the side of life. It is short enough - and miserable at times like these - without our help.