Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The life and death of Terri Schiavo: Now we know the truth, politics and all

The Terri Schiavo story seems like a distant memory -- I wrote about it extensively in the very early days of The Reaction, back at the end of March (see here and, more generally, here) -- but it reemerged today with the long-awaited results of the autopsy. See the Times article here:

An autopsy on Terri Schiavo, the severely brain damaged woman whose death sparked an intense debate over a person's right-to-die, showed that her brain was severely "atrophied," weighed less than half of what it should have, and that no treatment could have reversed the damage.

Now, this story is sad enough, and I hope that the results of the autopsy can finally put it to rest. But there's an important point here that needs to be addressed. In the days leading up to Terri's death, back during the storm over whether or not her feeding tubes should have been reinserted, back when Congress intervened to pass emergency legislation, back when President Bush flew back to Washington to sign said legislation, back when the federal judiciary was called upon to review the decisions of the Florida courts to grant Michael Schiavo's request to have her feeding tubes removed, a number of Republicans -- notably (Dr.) Bill Frist and (not-Dr.) Tom DeLay -- rejected medical determinations that she was in a "persistent vegetative state". In fact, Bill Frist even watched a few minutes of edited video footage from several years ago and diagnosed Terri without ever having even examined her. That was an astonishing piece of quasi-medical arrogance, but the Republicans (and the conservatives generally who rallied to defend Terri's "life") didn't back down. Removing the feeding tube (or, more specifically, refusing to reinsert it) amounted, in their view, to murder. That was always the implication, anyway, even if some weren't quite so explicit. But now we know the truth. Terri just wasn't there anymore -- not in any real, human way. This is how I put it back in March:

For my part, without knowing enough to reach any definite conclusions, I can only trust the expertise of her neurologists -- and, whatever the last-minute claims of doctors brought in by her family, those neurologists agreed that she was, in fact, living in a vegetative state. Or is that even the right way to put it? Was she at all living? In a sense, yes, but not, it would seem, in any truly human way. She was alive insofar as her body hadn't yet shut down. And those videos, streaming across the world, showed something. Yes, they had been conveniently edited to imply something approaching full consciousness, and hence to raise hopes of a miracle recovery, but they were nonetheless touching. But look through that. Her brain -- or at least the part of it that make a human being human in any full sense -- wasn't there anymore. It had withered away, much like the Terri Schiavo that had been there before the heart stoppage that ended up taking her life. In fact, it can be said that she was already "dead," and had been these past 15 years. That may sound like a heartless thing to say, but how can it be said that she was truly "alive"?

But will there be an apology or an admission of error -- or several of them -- from Frist, DeLay, and the rest of their Republican allies? Or from the thoughtless right-wing commentariat/blogosphere that jumped on the bandwagon? How about from The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, who -- as I mentioned in the second post linked above -- declared that liberals were "[indifferent]... to the fate of Terri Schiavo," that "liberalism washed its hands of Schiavo," that she was merely "[s]ick, needy, and handicapped"? I suspect not. As we've learned quite clearly from the Bush Administration itself, the right isn't about to admit that it's made any mistakes. They'll spout nonsense about the so-called "culture of life," and they'll turn even the most sensitive issue of human suffering into a tool for partisan warfare, but, in their view, they're always right. Even when they're wrong.

Here's more from the Times article:

[Piniellas-Pasco Medical Examiner] Dr. [Jon] Thogmartin said Ms. Schiavo technically died of "marked dehydration" - not starvation - after her feeding tube was removed.

But he said the underlying mystery at the heart of her case -- why she suddenly collapsed 15 years ago -- could not be answered. He said he considered the manner of her death to be "undetermined."

Instead, the medical examiner discussed some factors that did not appear to lead to Ms. Schiavo's illness.

The autopsy, for instance, showed that physical abuse or poison did not play a role in her collapse , he said. Ms. Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, had accused their daughter's husband, Michael Schiavo, of abusing her, which he has steadfastly denied. Dr. Thogmartin also said there was no evidence she had had an eating disorder before she collapsed, although a disorder was widely suspected because she had diminished levels of potassium in her blood.

And despite a widely televised video that appeared to show Ms. Schiavo responding to voices and other movement in her room, the autopsy said that Ms. Schiavo was blind in her final days. The medical examiner said she would not have been able to eat or drink had she been fed by mouth, as her parents had requested. The autopsy found no evidence that she suffered a heart attack, or that she had been given harmful drugs that may have accelerated her death.

Asked about persistent vegetative state, Dr. Stephen Milton, a neuropathology expert who joined Dr. Thogmartin at the news conference, said that term referred to a clinical diagnosis, not a pathological diagnosis. But, he said, "There was nothing in the autopsy that is inconsistent with persistent vegetative state."

Well, then, how about an apology for Michael Schiavo? He was turned into a villain, mostly by those right-wing activists, but, as it turns out, he probably knew Terri better than anyone. And he certainly knew that Terri had died long before her body gave out.

I don't often quote or link to Andrew Sullivan at The Reaction -- largely because I figure everyone knows who he is, not because I don't read him (which I do) -- but he's usually right on social/moral issues, and I find that he and I share the same libertarian instincts. His brief comments on today's news are right on:

THEY LIED: In her final days, Terri Schiavo was blind and her brain was about half its expected size. She wasn't in a PVS? Please. Bill Frist needs to acknowledge his reckless political opportunism at the time. The attempts of the fringe, theocon right to allege that her husband abused her have also been exposed as malicious falsehoods. Remember the lies that were told, the junk science that the theocons came up with, the endless slanders and misrepresentations? It's rare that we get an objective resolution of a fiercely disputed matter. We have now. And it ain't pretty.

The Republicans in Congress and their right-wing supporters around the country turned this into a sordid political story. They claimed it was because of their commitment to the "culture of life," but it surely had as much (or more) to do with scoring a few political points (even though polls were consistently against them). But, at heart, it wasn't a political story. It was a human one, and the truth is that poor Terri Schiavo had died a long, long time before her body gave out. She was alive, maybe, but not alive in any meaningful way. Not in any human way. The right has come to embrace life, but human life is also about living well, or at least being able to live well. Hopefully the results of the autopsy will confirm that her death was a release, and a relief, not a tragic loss of life.

But let us rather think fondly of that life that was lost, the life that was lived well, and of what Terri meant to her family and friends. Let us, that is, remember Terri Schiavo, not the political circus that developed around her death.

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