A Woman’s Life Versus an Inept Press


We don’t have full understanding of brain damage and consciousness . . . every patient is different . . . every patient’s pattern of brain damage is different. —Dr. Ross Bullock, Reynolds professor of neurosurgery at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, Newsday, October 26

I have covered highly visible, dramatic “right to die” cases—including those of Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan—for more than 25 years. Each time, most of the media, mirroring one another, have been shoddy and inaccurate.

The reporting on the fierce battle for the life of 39-year-old Terri Schiavo has been the worst case of this kind of journalistic malpractice I’ve seen.

On October 15, Terri’s husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, ordered the removal of her feeding tube. As she was dying, the Florida legislature and Governor Jeb Bush overruled her husband on October 21, and the gastric feeding tube has been reinserted pending further recourse to the court.

So intent is Michael Schiavo on having his wife die of starvation that one of his lawyers, after the governor’s order to reconnect the feeding tube, faxed doctors in the county where the life-saving procedure was about to take place, threatening to sue any physician who reinserted a feeding tube. The husband had immediately gone to court to get a judge to revoke what the legislature and the governor had done.

The husband claims that he is honoring his marriage vows by carrying out the wishes of his wife that she not be kept alive by “artificial means.” As I shall show, this hearsay “evidence” by the husband has been contradicted. The purportedly devoted husband, moreover, has been living with another woman since 1995. They have a child, with another on the way. Was that part of his marital vows?

For 13 years, Terri Schiavo has not been able to speak for herself. But she is not brain-dead, not in a comatose state, not terminal, and not connected to a respirator. If the feeding tube is removed, she will starve to death. Whatever she may or may not have said, did she consider food and water “artificial means?”

The media continually report that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state, and a number of neurologists and bioethicists have more than implied to the press that “persistent” is actually synonymous with “permanent.” This is not true, as I shall factually demonstrate in upcoming columns. I will also provide statements from neurologists who say that if Terri were given the proper therapy—denied to her by her husband and guardian after he decided therapy was becoming too expensive despite $750,000 from a malpractice suit—she could learn to eat by herself and become more responsive.

Terri is responsive, beyond mere reflexes. Having this degree of sentience, if she is starved to death, she will not “die in peace” as The New York Times predicts in an uninformed October 23 editorial supporting the husband. What happens to someone who can feel pain during the process of starvation is ghastly.

Increasingly, New York Times editorials are not as indicative of conscious liberal “bias” as they are of ignorance or denial of the facts, as I have demonstrated in my series on Judge Charles Pickering.

In all the stories on Terri Schiavo and her parents’ determined efforts to save her life, the media continually report that the Florida legislature intervened because of many thousands of calls, letters, and e-mails from the Christian right and pro-lifers. Those groups and individuals are indeed a major factor in rousing support to prevent Terri from being starved to death. But among the many others who sent urgent messages are disabled Americans and their organizations.

Except for the op-ed page article by Stephen Drake of the Not Dead Yet organization in the October 29 Los Angeles Times (“Disabled Are Fearful: Who Will Be Next?”) and a letter in the October 24 New York Times, I have seen hardly any mention in the press of the deeply concerned voices of the disabled, many of whom, in their own lives, have survived being terminated by bioethicists and other physicians who strongly believe that certain lives are not worth living. The numbers of these “new priesthoods of death,” as I call them, are increasing.

The letter to The New York Times signed by Max Lapertosa, staff counsel, Access Living in Chicago—told of “14 national disability organizations that filed a friend-of-the-court brief to support keeping Terri Schiavo alive.” Lapertosa objected to a Times editorial calling for Terri to go gently into that good night because, said the moral philosophers of the Times, “true respect for life includes recognizing . . . when it ceases to be meaningful.”

Max Lapertosa reminded Gail Collins’s board of oracles at the Time‘s editorial page that “many would lump into this category [of meaningless lives] people with severe autism, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy who, like Mrs. Schiavo, are nonverbal and are often described as being “in their own world.”

“The judicial sanctioning of such attitudes,” Lapertosa continued, “moves America back to the days when the sterilization and elimination of people with disabilities did not merely reflect private prejudices but were embraced as the law of the land.”

In the Los Angeles Times‘ October 29 op-ed piece by Stephen Drake, he writes: “I was born brain-damaged as a result of a forceps delivery. The doctor told my parents I would be a ‘vegetable’ for the rest of my life—the same word now being used for Schiavo—and that the best thing would be for nature to take its course. They refused. Although I had a lot of health problems, surgeries and pain as a child, I went on to lead a happy life.” And clearly, his is a very articulate life. I have interviewed other such “vegetables.”

Ignoring the facts of the case, the American Civil Liberties Union—to my disgust, but not my surprise in view of the long-term distrust of the ACLU by disability rights activists—has marched to support the husband despite his grave conflicts of interests in this life-or-death case. The ACLU claims the governor and the legislature of Florida unconstitutionally overruled the courts, which continued to declare the husband the lawful guardian. On the other hand, the ACLU cheered when Governor George Ryan of Illinois substituted his judgment for that of the courts by removing many prisoners from death row. In a later column, I’ll go deeper into the constitutional debate over saving Terri’s life.

In the October 28 weeklystandard.com, Wesley Smith, author of Forced Exit—who has accurately researched more of these cases than anyone I know—reports that of the $750,000 to be held in trust for Terri’s rehabilitation, two of Michael Schiavo’s lawyers pressing for removal of her feeding tube have been paid more than $440,000. Whom did that rehabilitate? Any comment from the ACLU? If the husband and the lawyers succeed, maybe the ACLU will send flowers to Terri’s funeral.