Mar. 23, 2005

Terri Schiavo - rest in peace?

It's hard to avoid the media furor over the fate of Terri Schiavo these days. The question that arises in my mind is whether this a personal tragedy being played out in public or a political controversy. It seems to me that sadly the latter is the case, considering the unprecedented and intrusive attention being paid to this issue by the Republicans. They probably view this issue as a fulcrum to unseat Florida's Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in 2006 and shore up support in a number of vulnerable congressional seats.

For the people directly involved in this tragedy, I hope that Terri can be allowed to die the peaceful death she has a right to and that those who love her will be able to find peace within themselves. For those that are using this situation for their own purposes some comments are in order.

The facts are these:
  • Terri has been in a "persistent vegetative state" since 1990, when she suffered a massive heart attack brought on by bulemia. Although she was revived she has never regained consciousness.
  • Her brain has subsequently deteriorated to the point that much of her cerebral cortex has wasted away and been replaced by spinal fluid.
  • By medical consensus she is irreversibly brain dead although the vestiges of her brain that still function enable her to breathe unassisted. These vestiges also trigger the random involuntary movements that Terri's parents cling to as evidence that Terri is aware and struggling to communicate.
  • Eight years after Terri's collapse her husband asked the courts to decide if Terri should be disconnected from the equipment that has sustained her. He maintains her expressed wishes were that she would not want to be kept alive in this condition. The courts agreed that this was her wish.
  • Her parents, with the support of a host of religious conservatives, have fought Terri's husband to both keep her "alive" and wrest control of her from him.
  • Over the years various Republican officials have intervened in the case in support of Terri's parents.
  • These political maneuverings have always been conclusively rejected by the courts.
Terri's parents maintain that:
  • Terri responds to them and, like the Black Knight from the Monty Python sketch with all his limbs hacked off in combat, she will "get better". Unfortunately the evidence is clear that Terri's "responses" are random and can't be linked to any external activity. Evidence of communication appears to be staged. And no-one has ever grown a new brain.
  • Terri would not want to die, even in this condition, as it would be a mortal sin. Although Terri was a practicing Catholic the courts have concluded that she was against such extreme life support measures. I can't imagine a rational person that would actually insist on being kept alive in such a state. Think it through: either you really are dead and your loved ones are left in a state of pointless ongoing grief or you have enough consciousness to suffer through decades of inert isolation.
Obsidian Wings has an interesting bioethecist's opinion on the subject of Terri. Abstract Appeal a legal blog by a Florida attorney, has a detailed history of this sad matter. There's also a summary in the Wikipedia "online encyclopedia".

For a different opinion of Terri's condition and interests you can visit and read such ghastly photo captions as Terri responds to her mother's playful attention. Notice however that Terri's "expression" is unchanged, and whomever she is "conversing" with is always placed in Terri's theoretical line of sight.

I'll finish with The Daily Show's take last night on the political hypocrisy of the situation.

Listening to: Harvester Of Hearts by Rufus Wainwright from Want One.


  1. This is such a tragedy! I'm having a very hard time with it. On one hand, I understand the medical condition and I know I wouldn't want to be kept alive in Terri's condition. I'm sure she wouldn't want that either and she should be allowed to die peacefully. But...I just can't imagine denying her the very basics, food and water, and watching her starve to death. I feel for both the husband and the parents. My heart goes out to them and I'm glad I'm not the one making this decision. Sadly I do agree that this is a political controversy.

  2. I was on that site earlier and saw that. It's sad but I don't even think my Catholic mother would want me alive in that state and she's signed a living will stating that much for herself.

    I watched a couple of the videos and you put it way better than I could: its even worse to think she does know enough what's going on and can't speak or do anything about it herself. Horrible situation.

  3. chaotic serenity: I think poor Terri has been gone for fifteen years, so there's no suffering. I agree that a quicker "conclusion" would be more emotionally palatable though.

    mary: Probably the only good thing to come out of all this is that everyone is racing out to sign their own living wills!

  4. I see the desperation her parents possess and it breaks my heart. They are holding on to something that is dead. I feel it is selfish to keep her alive.

  5. amanda: You're right, Terri's parents just can't let go. I think the objective evidence is that everything possible had been done within the first year or two, and they should have let her pass then. I don't know if their resolution is based on their own emotions or if is driven by the manipulation of religious activists though.