The day 'reasonable doubt' fell from grace

Posted: Apr 01, 2005 12:00 AM

With Terri Schiavo's death, we can look forward to weeks, months and possibly years of discussion about what we've learned from this sad, tragic, depressing and sometimes embarrassing travail.

From the carnival cast who camped outside Schiavo's hospice to the pious pontificators on all sides, we've been treated to a surreal adventure through the culture of life and the valley of death. What are we to make of it?

Was Michael Schiavo a hero for fighting to let his wife die, as he claimed she would have wanted? Or was he a villain for depriving Terri Schiavo's parents of their desire to care for their daughter? Was Terri Schiavo capable of suffering, aware of her surroundings? Or was she, as some doctors determined, in a "persistent vegetative state," essentially not "there"?

The Schiavo saga may be like war - something we have to recover from before we can make rational judgments about the rightness or wrongness of our actions. As one who concluded that the humane and common-sense solution was to let Schiavo live and her parents care for her, I find myself at a loss for appropriate closing words except to say that something went terribly wrong here.

Objectively, there seemed on several points to be enough "reasonable doubt" - the standard for any jury considering a death sentence - to avoid the final solution. Distilled to simplest terms, the crux was this: If Terri Schiavo would not suffer from dying, then she also would not suffer from living.

Fundamentally, is it not better to build our slippery slope on the side of a beating heart?

I pose this strictly as a philosophical question, not as a practical matter in consideration of all the thousands of people living among snarls of medical tubing and industrial machinery, or medical and insurance costs, or even family hardship, which all combined might incite a riot for euthanasia.

In the philosophical realm, where our better angels dwell, check marks in the "reasonable doubt" column far outnumber those in the "certainty" column - from what Terri Schiavo would have wanted to what her condition was.

Although several doctors diagnosed Terri as being in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS), unaware of herself and her surroundings, others, including doctors and her parents, saw something else - a person badly damaged but responsive enough on occasion to warrant continued feeding, at a minimum.

There was also dispute as to what Terri would have wanted. In the absence of a written document, the word of her husband, Michael Schiavo (corroborated by a couple of his family members), sealed her fate.

But Michael Schiavo's word was cast into reasonable doubt by his "common-law" marriage to another woman with whom he has children. Common sense tells us that Michael Schiavo's personal interests vis-a-vis his new family were in direct conflict with those of Terri Schiavo, who may be the first known Catch-22 fatality.

Mute and brain-damaged, she couldn't object or divorce her husband, who insisted that she die while refusing to divorce her, though he lived with another woman in a no-fault state that also doesn't recognize common-law marriage. There's a feminist mother lode buried in there somewhere.

At this point, everyone asks, "Yes, but would you want to live that way?" No, most of us wouldn't, but nor would many of us want to die that way. Thus, the more accurate question should be:

"If you were in a PVS or semi-conscious state - and opinions differed - would you rather have your mother and father take care of you or have your feeding tube withdrawn, after which you would die slowly of starvation and dehydration, though opinions differ as to whether you would be aware of the symptoms?"

To be fair and accurate, we would offer some insight into what starvation and dehydration are like. Here's how a neurologist describes the process in Wesley Smith's book, "Forced Exit":

"A conscious person would feel it (dehydration) just as you and I would. . Their skin cracks, their tongue cracks, their lips crack. They may have nosebleeds because of the drying of the mucous membranes, and heaving and vomiting might ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining. . It is an extremely agonizing death."

Whether Terri Schiavo was conscious of her suffering is the question of essence. Michael Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, reported during the deathwatch that Terri wasn't suffering and looked "beautiful." Terri's parents thought otherwise. Given the difference of opinion, we might consider the fact that Terri Schiavo was given morphine.

Even those tending the dying woman apparently had reasonable doubt. In our world on this day, Death got the benefit of that doubt.