Commentary

Terri Schiavo’s Life in Balance

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on April 13, 2004.
WASHINGTON - The world has moved on since the case of Terri Schiavo, whose husband sought to remove the feeding tube that kept her alive, briefly grabbed public attention last fall. But Terri’s life remains at risk.

Michael Schiavo, her parents, the state of Florida, and advocacy groups continue to fight over her future. Alas, she keeps losing where it matters most, in court.

Terri collapsed in 1990, leaving her profoundly cognitively disabled. Her husband won a $1.3 million malpractice judgment that included money for her medical care, but subsequently refused to fund rehabilitative treatment for her.

Along the way he moved in with a woman he describes as his fiance and with whom he has had two children. Six years ago he petitioned the court to remove Terri’s feeding tube.

In October 2003, Michael won approval to let her die. Florida’s legislature quickly empowered Gov. Jeb Bush to order the tube re-inserted, which he did. Michael is seeking to invalidate that legislation.

Killing Terri — or, more delicately, allowing her to die — should be permitted only if that is what she wants, or would have wanted. But we don’t know that. Michael claims that she said she desired “no tubes.” Her family never heard her talk in such terms. And Michael apparently told a girlfriend that he and Terri never discussed the issue.

In any case, such comments by Terri, even if true, hardly offer the certainty necessary to let her die. A number of doctors and other experts have argued that rehabilitative therapy, barred by Michael, could improve her condition, wean her off of the feeding tube, and help her to speak.

More fundamentally, Michael’s own credibility is in doubt. Questions go back to her initial injury. Noted pathologist Dr. Michael Baden discounted the diagnosis of a heart attack; he says the report of a bone scan after her collapse revealed that Terri had “a history of trauma.”

Of course, this does not prove that Michael is responsible for her condition. But nurses report hearing him make such comments as “When is that bitch going to die.” The circumstances raise important questions, now being investigated by Florida’s Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.

In any case, Michael clearly would benefit from Terri’s death. Not only is he the legal guardian of the trust fund holding what remains of the malpractice judgment, but he cannot wed his fiance so long as Terri lives. He’s done nothing to dispel suspicion about his behavior.

For instance, he has flaunted a 1996 court order requiring him to furnish Robert and Mary Schindler with annual guardianship reports and notify Terri’s caregivers that they could answer questions from the Schindlers. Terri’s parents say they were not even aware of two episodes of vomiting, which could have led to her death, in February.

The frustrated Schindlers filed suit to hold Michael in contempt of court. But in late March, Florida Judge George W. Greer rejected their motion.

Court-appointed guardian Jay Wolfson recently recommended giving Terri a swallowing test — and maintaining the tube if she passed. But another judge rejected Wolfson’s recommendation and failed to renew Wolfson’s guardianship.

Now Judge W. Douglas Baird is preparing to rule on the constitutionality of the law that enabled Gov. Bush to intervene. If the statute is voided, it is hard to imagine any other court intervening to save her.

Although the most important immediate concern is Terri’s life, much more is at stake. Ominously, belief in a “duty to die” seems to be increasing in the United States, as well as Europe.

Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff warns of a “growing conviction among American doctors, bioethicists, and hospital ethics committees that it is ‘futile’ to try to treat certain patients, and therefore, medical professionals should have the power to decide — even against the wishes of the family — when to allow these valueless lives to end.”

It is easy to look at Terri Schiavo and ask, who wants to live like that? But David Jayne, who survives only through use of a ventilator, says that “I’m very passionate about the Terri Schindler-Schiavo issue, because I live it.”

He explains that before contracting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he couldn’t have imagined living under such circumstances, but that I “still find meaning in life.” He warns: “It is incredibly wrong for society to decide who lives or dies based on their opinions of what level of quality of life is worth living.”

What is Terri’s opinion? We may never know.

But we do know that we don’t know enough to assume that she would prefer to be dead. We must treat life as sacred and worth preserving. Nothing has been presented in Terri’s case to overcome that presumption of life.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.