Terri Schiavo: Finding certainties in a difficult case
Here are some of the facts in the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband wants to end her life by ordering doctors to remove her feeding tube:
•Mrs. Schiavo had a heart attack due to a chemical imbalance 15 years ago when she was 26 years old. For a while, she got no oxygen to her brain. She cannot walk and talk.
•Her husband, Michael Schiavo, says she had told him she would not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state.
•Doctors say they detect little brain activity in Mrs. Schiavo, but her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, oppose her husband’s efforts to remove the tube so that she will starve to death. They say she smiles when they visit her, which is daily, that her eyes follow them as they move about her room, and that she is responsive. In television pictures, she seems to be smiling and interacting with her family.
•Doctors who have examined her say her facial movements are probably reflexes. They do not expect her mental condition to improve.
•In any case, unlike most people from whom doctors have removed all life-support, Mrs. Schiavo is not comatose. And she breathes on her own, without artificial assistance. Her heartbeat also is unassisted.
•Mr. and Mrs. Schindler say that, as a Roman Catholic, Mrs. Schiavo would not want her feeding tube removed. Although her husband says she would not wish to be kept alive, she left no written instructions to that effect.
•Money clouds the picture. Doctors who allegedly failed to detect the chemical imbalance that caused the heart attack have been sued, and a million-dollar malpractice award is involved. The Schindlers say they want Schiavo to divorce their daughter so they can be her guardians. He says they are after the money. They say he refuses to divorce her because he wants the money.
•There has been no magnetic resonance imaging test, or MRI, to detect the level of activity in Mrs. Schiavo’s brain.
•If the gastric tube is removed, her death from starvation and dehydration is expected to take about a week. Her parents believe it would be painful to her.
This heart-breaking case has been tied up in the courts for years. Two years ago, the feeding tube was removed after one court ruling, and Gov. Jeb Bush got the Florida Legislature to pass a law requiring that it be replaced. That law consequently was declared unconstitutional, and the court battles resumed. Only this week Mrs. Schiavo got her latest reprieve.
As she lingers still between life and death, there are two certainties amongst an ocean of uncertainties.
The first certainty is that death is preferable to some types of life, especially for a person who is prepared spiritually to go.
The second certainty is that killing a person who has even a scintilla of awareness and happiness is wrong.
Terri Schiavo should not be starved to death until every possible medical test is conducted to determine how much she knows. The courts should reject her husband’s assertions that the tests would violate her privacy.
Published in Editorials on February 25, 2005 9:44 AM