Prospects for saving Terri Schiavo appear increasingly dim. Unless a federal appeals court acts immediately to instruct the district court to order a feeding tube re-inserted, she will die of dehydration and starvation in a matter of days. A surprising number of Americans believe this is a good thing, at least according to some polls taken over the last few weeks.
An ABC poll taken this week showed that 63 percent of Americans favored the removal of Schiavo's feeding tubes, while only 28 percent opposed the court-ordered action. But a closer look at the poll reveals stunning bias in the way the question was posed. The poll asserted that Schiavo "has been on life support for 15 years," and that "doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible," before positing the question, "Do you support or oppose the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube?" But the premise itself was wrong.
Schiavo was not on "life support" as that term is commonly understood. She suffers no life-threatening disease or condition. She required no ventilator to assist her breathing, no dialysis machine for kidney function, nor any other medical "life support" systems. Like many severely disabled people, Schiavo does require assistance in obtaining nutrition. It's not even clear that she requires the permanent use of a feeding tube. Several physicians who have examined Schiavo acknowledge that she swallows her own saliva -- an estimated two liters a day -- and at least one board-certified neurologist who examined her on three separate occasions has testified that she probably could be trained to swallow other liquids as well, given the proper therapy. If she can swallow on her own, it would require little more to keep Schiavo alive than it does all infants and many elderly and physically or mentally disabled people -- a caring individual to feed and clothe her and attend to her personal hygiene.
So on what basis is withholding food and water justified? Many of those polled by ABC seemed to base their responses on how they would want to be treated in similar circumstances. "If you were in this condition, would you want to be kept alive, or not?" the pollsters asked. Some 78 percent of respondents said they would not want to be kept alive -- an astonishingly high number. But, interestingly, only one week earlier another ABC poll found an even larger number -- 87 percent -- who said they would want to die in similar circumstances.
But who really knows how he or she would feel if faced with such a decision, and is it morally responsible to make such a decision far in advance? The news media have been obsessed with advising people to make out "advance medical directives" or "living wills" so that their families will not encounter the agonizing end-of-life debates that Terri Schiavo's family faced. But the ABC poll raises some interesting questions. Assuming the poll itself included a valid, representative sample, nearly 10 percent fewer people would choose death if asked the question at another time. Clearly many people change their minds -- so is it really a good idea to base a decision as momentous as ending a life on what someone thinks they want years earlier?
Of course, we don't know what Terri Schiavo would have wanted. Whether she is in a persistent vegetative state or not -- and there is debate among those physicians who have actually examined her on this issue, notwithstanding the mainstream media's disingenuous attempts to suggest otherwise -- we don't know what Schiavo wanted. We have only her husband's word (corroborated by Michael Schiavo's family, not Terri's) that she once said, after viewing a movie about a comatose patient, that she wouldn't want to live in such a condition.
Under the circumstances, what possible harm could come from keeping Schiavo alive? Her parents and several benefactors have offered to assume the financial burden of doing so. Yet, the courts have, so far, deferred to Michael Schiavo's wishes to withdraw food and water from Terri, despite the compromised nature of his relationship with his wife. Michael Schiavo has been in a decade-long common-law relationship with another woman by whom he's fathered two children, while still tenaciously asserting his spousal rights to determine Terri's fate, and he stands to inherit whatever is left of a million-dollar medical malpractice settlement awarded for Terri Schiavo's care.
If a court can order Terri Schiavo to be slowly starved to death on the wishes of an estranged husband, who will be next?