The Schiavos’ War, and Ours

Judge James D. Whittemore, in deciding the Terri Schiavo case, did just as one might have expected, apparently deciding according to his personal beliefs and then finding ample legal justification for them. Legally, this one is not a slam dunk for either side. How could it be? There are too many conflicting rights and responsibilities in play.

In my view, Terri Schiavo’s protectors, led by her parents, have fought a valiant fight for her life, but have not gained sufficient ground for their case in the public consciousness. It is important to recognize that the PR war in such cases is the real battleground, and in that realm they appear to me to have some work remaining to do. They must insistently emphasize and continue to keep at the forefront the fact that Terri Schiavo is not brain dead. She is by no means a normal candidate for a denial of food and water.

The New York Times agrees. In today’s story by Abby Goodnough, the reporter noted, “She [Terri Schiavo] can breathe on her own and has periods of wakefulness, but Judge George Greer of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, who presided over the case, accepted the testimony of doctors who said she was in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ and incapable of thought or emotion.”

That should have been the first and most persistent message of Terri’s friends in the PR war: that she is not brain dead. She is alive and has periods of wakefulness. That is to say, she is like the rest of us, only her periods of sleep are longer and deeper. We are all in a persistent vegetative state, in the sense that sleep persistently comes to us each day whether we wish it or not.

By the logic of Michael Schiavo and his lawyers, any human being that could not get its own food and water—such as any infant or frail elderly person—could be said to be in a persistent vegetative state and denied these essentials of life and put to a slow, horrible death.

This is an argument that should be at the forefront of the case, and would have great effect, I think, in that it would shift the ground away from the public thinking that they would hate to be in Terri Schiavo’s situation and would want someone there to protect their stated wishes (though not written in this case, and backed only by the party who is trying to have her killed) that they not be forced to live for many years though brain-dead. It would put the observer in Terri’s position instead of Michael’s.

The public would be encouraged to see the case as very different: of them being potentially forced to die because someone feels their presence too much of a burden.

The public must be made to feel as much sympathy for the disabled persons whose very lives are being debated as we now feel for those forced to make such agonizing decisions. Only when the public presses for legislative action will the law begin to reflect the needs of both parties in such cases, with a full respect for the rights of the helpless to live even when they pose a burden others do not wish to accept.

I will say it now: there is a word for what happens when a person puts another human being to death because the first person believes that the other stands in the way of his or her happiness.

It is murder.

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