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Terri's life is still tenuous

Posted By Ilana Mercer On 10/24/2003 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Terri Schindler-Schiavo has won a reprieve, for now. Seven days into a court-ordered death by dehydration, the Florida legislator and governor, besieged by an outraged public, passed a speedy and one-time stay, ordering that the disabled woman’s feeding tube be reinstated.

Justice George W. Greer had Terri’s sustenance removed, at the behest of her husband who has for some years now been making legal lunges at his wife’s gastronomy tube, in an effort to dislodge it and eliminate her.

Shortly after Terri suffered brain damage, Michael Schiavo sued for medical malpractice. Subsequent to telling a jury that he intended to care for his wife for the rest of his life, he was awarded a sizeable sum for that purpose. By then, Schiavo – who was alleged to have taken up with a series of paramours, according to the Schindlers’ lawsuit – decided to embark on a different course of action, first frustrating Terri’s medical and rehabilitative therapy and, later, seeking to end her fragile life by filing a Petition for Authorization to Discontinue Artificial Life Support.

Although the press accompanied Gov. Jeb Bush’s last-minute intervention on behalf of Terri with headlines such as, “Bush gets right-to-die power,” this is patently false. The governor’s Amicus Curiae states his narrow mandate in the case, which is to ensure Terri is not deprived of her fundamental right to life without due process of law. Bush is not assuming the power to grant or deny Terri’s rights, but is simply upholding her right to be free of aggression or threats to her life.

Gov. Bush’s brief served to halt the week-long torture Terri had been enduring. But it is fundamentally – tragically, perhaps – flawed. Despite the absence of any living will, the governor, like the court before him, accepts Michael Schiavo’s say-so – Schiavo claims Terri had once told him she would not want to live if she were incapacitated. There is no proof she said this, and even if she had, it was probably in passing or without much forethought, as is the wont of a healthy young woman. People can change views they held at the immortal age of 26.

More to the point, even if Terri’s unfaithful husband is faithfully representing her deepest desires and she indeed harangued him night and day about wanting to be put down, no one must tell me she wants to die in a manner WorldNetDaily’s Jane Chastain described as:

… a painful, agonizing and arduous process that takes 10 to 14 days.

In addition to feeling the pangs of hunger and thirst, the skin, lips and tongue crack. The nose bleeds because of the drying of the mucus membranes. Heaving and vomiting may ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining. The victim may experience seizures.

As the fluid level in the body goes down, the blood pressure goes down and the heart rate goes up. Respiration often increases as blood is shunted from the periphery to the central part of the body in a desperate attempt to sustain the primary organs. The hands and feet become extremely cold.

When people express a wish to die in the event that they are dramatically enfeebled, they always mean quickly and painlessly. What was – perhaps still is – in store for poor Terri was anything but quick and painless.

One can easily see why animal metaphors surfaced to describe this cruelty. A society whose members slobber neurotically over pets would not tolerate it if, like Terri Schindler-Schiavo, an animal were subjected to such an agonizing, drawn-out death.

Terri’s stay of execution is tenuous, at best, because the governor still believes her husband-cum-guardian proved she would have outright rejected so much as a non-medical feeding tube. There’s provisory hope, though. Her wish to “live without artificial sustenance,” says the governor, must not be equated with “a wish not to be fed at all.”

If she can learn some tricks – and fast – specifically to “ingest food and water on her own,” Terri might have a shot at survival. Of course, Merciful Michael could still get his way: No one knows if Terri can learn to swallow and digest. A window of opportunity may have been lost when, as part of his efforts to “improve” the quality of her life, Schiavo forbade any such therapy.

In any event, this is not a right-to-die-with-dignity dilemma, and not only because there is no mercy or grace in so dreadful a death. The real rub here is the absence of a written directive from Terri. No one knows with the necessary degree of certainty what Terri’s treatment wishes are.

In her old photos, the able-bodied Terri is strikingly beautiful and vibrant. The disabled Terri provides a sad contrast. But as broken and imperfect as she is, Terri is neither terminal, brain dead nor comatose.

Some doctors insist that Terri’s smile at the sight of her mother is some neuronal misfiring. Fine, so be it. But since Terri cannot tell us whether she would rather be dehydrated to death, in accordance with her guardian’s wishes, or whether she prefers to grimace apparently inanely and comfortably at mom for years to come, let sympathy and common sense prevail.

The woman’s wishes are more likely to be approximated if her loving parents are allowed to preserve a life they – if not their sinister son-in-law – so value.


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