Schiavo case demands answers to bigger questions

Posted: Oct 29, 2003 12:00 AM
"This case has been mischaracterized," declares the multiply distinguished Dr. Daniel Sulmasy -- not just a doctor, and not just the head of Manhattan's St. Vincent's hospital, but a Franciscan friar. He is talking to a New York Times reporter, so of course everything is very "complex."

The case of Terri Schiavo, the young woman Gov. Jeb Bush saved from death by dehydration, is not "the case of a woman who is disabled being starved to death." Instead, "the real moral issue is these sort of thorny disagreements that occur in the settings of real families."

Watch the words. We live in a postmodern age where instead of searching for truth, symbolic analysts delight in magically transforming reality by manipulating the language. Change the word, and you change the thing.

Take the word "husband." In America, marriage trumps even the biological tie between parent and child. This is not a universal truth. In many cultures, the husband's father, as head of the family, would be the ultimate arbiter between family and state. But in our specific inherited marriage tradition, the two shall become "one flesh."

Michael Schiavo, who wants the hospital to discontinue giving Terri food and water, is Terri's husband in the sense that 13 years ago he was married to her. He is now living with another woman, who has given him one child and is pregnant with another. A million-dollar medical malpractice judgment is at stake: If he divorces Terri, she would get it. If he gets the hospital to refuse her food and water, he and his concubine and their children will get it. The conflict of interest is palpable. Terri and Michael are no longer "one flesh."

Michael's lawyer, seeking a grotesque sympathy for his client, argues that after 13 years with a wife in a vegetative state, doesn't Michael have the right to "walk away"?

Walk away?

Oh, are those the words for what Michael wants to do?

Or take another phrase, this time from Dudley Clendinen, a former Times reporter. Terri Schiavo, he tells us, is in a "permanent vegetative state." Permanent? The actual medical term is "persistent vegetative state." It is a small, but telling error.

Terri is not brain dead. She is alive. We do not know whether her damaged brain will be able to reconnect itself with the rest of the world. We do know that patients with the same diagnosis have woken up, even 20 years later, their memories and personalities intact. Dudley should know better. After his dad suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he looked into his father's eyes and just knew, "My father wasn't there anymore." So he and his family ordered the tubes supplying food and water be discontinued. It took nine days for the family's refusal to give water to the thirsty to have its inevitable effect.

When Mom suffered the same kind of stroke, he again looked into her eyes and knew that she too was gone. Then, just as they were about to disconnect her lifeline, she woke up, going from comatose to critic in seconds: "That picture is really dreadful. I'd like it taken down." The fact that his mother, and some others, come back from persistent vegetative states (even after years) tells us something very important: They are still there. Even when they cannot reach us and we cannot reach them, they are still there.

Not dead yet. Not even dying. Just in need of help with food and water.

The real question is not "Who decides?" or "What is family?" or even "What would Terri Schiavo want?" The real question in this case is: What kind of people are we?

In Florida, the people through their legislature have spoken: not the kind of people who starve disabled women to death. Not yet, anyway.