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Book of Matthew: Four years later, remembering the tragedy of Terri Schiavo

Published: April 3, 2009
Section: Opinions

This past Tuesday marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, who, on Mar. 31, 2005, died at her hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida after spending 15 years in a vegetative state. She was 41 years old—far too young.

Many of you, if not almost all of you, recognize the name Terri Schiavo. No doubt you followed her story closely back when it was controversial, back when it was being broadcast by every media outlet imaginable. Maybe some of you still remember some of the details: the family feud, the endless court battles, the state and federal government involvement. Perhaps, at one point in time, you even had a strong opinion on the matter.

Four years later, I believe it is worth taking a look back.

The story began on Feb. 25, 1990, when Terri was suddenly and mysteriously found lying unconscious on the floor of her St. Petersburg apartment, not breathing and lacking a pulse. Upon being rushed to the hospital, it was determined that she had suffered cardiac arrest. The lack of oxygen had caused severe damage to her brain, and after a two-and-a-half month coma she remained in a vegetative state, subsisting off a feeding tube.

For a while after the incident, the Schiavo family focused solely on Terri’s rehabilitation. They took her to several different facilities and had her undergo many experimental treatments in the hope of making some progress. Terri’s husband Michael, who had been appointed her guardian, even went to school to be trained as a nurse in order to take better care of her. However, months and years passed, and despite the extensive therapy, Terri’s condition did not improve. Finally concluding that there was no more hope for his wife, Michael chose to file a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.

By now, the strained relationship between Michael and Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, completely fell apart. Michael claimed that Terri’s condition was irreversible, and he felt that if she had a say, she would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially. The Schindlers, on the other hand, were more optimistic and wanted to keep Terri on the feeding tube in the hope that one day she would eventually improve.

In 1998, Michael finally decided to have the feeding tube removed and to allow Terri to die of dehydration. Although doctors assured him that with the proper pain medication the death could be peaceful and pain-free, the Schindlers were appalled by the very idea. And so, from 1998 until 2003, Michael and the Schindlers took to the courts, arguing over everything from Terri’s last wishes to Michael’s status as guardian. It was a long, brutal process, but after countless testimonies by doctors and several appeals, Michael was able to retain his guardianship and to have the feeding tube removed, allowing Terri to die. On Oct. 15, 2003, he did so. Or at least, he tried.

Had this been the final act of this tragic story, most of us would never have heard the name Terri Schaivo. She would have been allowed to die in peace and escape the prison that her body had become. Her family, though wrenched apart by years of argument, would have at least been able to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and move on. But this was not the final act.

On Oct. 21, 2003, 15 days after the removal of Terri’s feeding tube, the Florida state government became involved. At the urging of the Schindlers, who still refused to accept their daughter’s impending death, the Florida legislature, led by several religious right-wing lawmakers, passed a piece of legislation known as “Terri’s Law.” The law gave Governor Jeb Bush, another member of the religious right, the authority to have the feeding tube reinserted. Although arguably an unconstitutional law (it gave the executive branch of the state government powers reserved for the judicial branch), it was signed by Governor Bush that same day, who proceeded to carry it out.

And thus, the court battles resumed. This time, they went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court, which, on Sept. 23, 2004, ruled in a unanimous decision that “Terri’s Law” was, in fact, unconstitutional. The law was overturned, and despite further appeals from the Schindlers, Terri’s feeding tube was once again removed on Mar. 18, 2005.

But even this was not the end of the story. As the debate had raged in Florida courtrooms, Terri and the fight over her life had begun to pick up considerable national attention.

In Congress, several Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL), and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), took great interest in Terri’s story. Like Governor Bush and his allies in the Florida legislature, Frist, Hastert, and DeLay all subscribed to the ideology of the religious right. They felt that no matter what the circumstances, Terri should be kept alive, and in order to make that happen they enlisted the help of several Republican lawmakers in drafting legislation that would allow the Schindlers to sue in federal court. The legislation, unofficially referred to by Rep. DeLay as the “Palm Sunday Compromise,” was passed by Congress on March 21, 2005 and signed into law by President Bush (yet another member of the religious right) that same day.

Interestingly, just like in the Florida state government, this Act of Congress was also arguably unconstitutional. Opponents called it a bill of attainder—a piece of legislation banned by the Constitution that only applies to one individual. Also, due to clever manipulation, Congressional Republicans managed to get the bill passed and on President Bush’s desk without a quorum in the Senate (only three Senators were present when the vote was called and all three voted yes) and a significantly smaller House of Representatives (174 Representatives were not present). Finally, as in Florida, Congress was accused of usurping powers normally reserved for the courts.

Despite these problems, the “Palm Sunday Compromise” went into effect. As soon as it did, the Schindlers began to file appeals. They reached the US Supreme Court, at which time the highest court in the land decided not to hear the case. This was the end of legal action for the Schindlers; on Mar. 31, 2005, Terri succumbed to dehydration and died.

At the time of her death, news of Terri’s story had reached just about every part of the country. The question on everyone’s mind was, who was right? Had Terri simply been an unresponsive vegetable, as Michael had claimed? Or had she been aware of her surroundings and capable of recovery, as the Schindlers claimed?

The autopsy provided a clear answer. Terri’s brain, it was discovered, had shrunken to half the size of a normal female brain. According to medical examiners who performed the autopsy, this fact strongly suggested a vegetative state that would not have been cured by therapy or other treatments. Michael and the doctors who advised him were correct. The Schindlers, their doctors, and the governments of both the State of Florida and the United States were wrong.

Four years later, it is still easy to see how entirely screwed-up this whole affair was. No person should have to suffer the way Terri suffered. No husband should have to watch the empty shell that was once his wife and wonder if there is any spark of consciousness left inside. No parents should have to look into the eyes of their daughter, searching for a trace of their little girl.

And yet, whether or not these things should happen, they do—almost everyday. And they are difficult enough for despondent families to deal with without outside intervention. So was it really necessary for politicians—who could clearly see the anguish of both the resigned husband and the desperately hopeful parents—to take part in this affair? No. But they did nonetheless. As word of a controversial social issue reached their ears, the politicians dusted off their Bibles and entered the fray, ready to spread the good gospel of Jesus Christ and strengthen their pro-life voter base.

This is only barely an exaggeration on my part; it is no accident that the most active politicians by far in this case were, as I pointed out earlier, religious right-wing Republicans.

It is highly doubtful that these Republicans—who claimed to care about Terri and hold her best interests at heart—still remember her today. They have likely moved on to the next major social issue (gay marriage, perhaps?) and therefore her memory serves no use to them. The votes they could have gained have already been gained.

But Terri must be remembered. Because whether you took the side of her husband or her parents (and given the telling results of the autopsy, I hope that you at least come to understand Michael’s view) we must all realize that this debate had no business expanding beyond the Schiavo-Schindler family. It should have stayed out of the public eye and been kept in that hospice in Florida, where the three family members could have made that painful decision without help from two legislatures, a state governor, and his complete idiot brother who just happened to be President of the United States.

Can we, with our historical experience and wise voting choices, manage to prevent such a controversy from ever erupting again? Can we, the voters, the consumers of news, the constituents of politicians, finally learn how to give people the privacy that they deserve?