I didn’t expect to be writing about Terri Schiavo’s case again (see “Schindler’s list”). But occasionally an individual tragedy grows beyond itself and amplifies the saber-rattling ideologies of its age. So it is with Theresa Schiavo.
The facts of the case are laid out reasonably well by Jay Wolfsen, a court appointed guardian who reviewed the case in 2003 at the request of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush [.pdf file].
Theresa and Michael Schiavo were married in November 1984. They were on good terms with Theresa’s (Schindler) family. Michael was a restaurant manager. Theresa worked for the Prudential Life Insurance Company.
Theresa had battled obesity most of her life. By the time of her marriage she had lost considerable weight. Three years later the couple sought the help of an obstetrician in having a child. Theresa continued losing weight and on Feb. 25, 1990, collapsed in the hallway of her apartment. She suffered cardiac arrest, brain damage and slipped into a coma.
In September 1990, Theresa returned home from the hospital, but was sent to College Park nursing facility after three weeks because “the family was overwhelmed by Terri’s care needs” (Wolfson report). She has been in various nursing facilities ever since.
Reading Mr. Wolfson’s report leaves me with several questions. He described a previous court-appointed guardian, Richard Pearse, as reporting to the court that by 1998 over $700,000 of Theresa’s $750,000 award still remained in a trust fund. But the report describes a considerable number of aggressive therapies in the years prior. Unless the award were earning a superior investment return I do not see how these could have been paid for with less than $50,000.
Mr. Pearse was critical of Mr. Schiavo’s role as guardian and feared he may have been influenced by the trust funds. In Mr. Wolfson’s review he wrote: “Mr. Pearse concludes that Michael’s hearsay testimony about Theresa’s intent is ‘necessarily adversely affected by the obvious financial benefit to him of being the sole heir at law …’ and ‘… by the chronology of this case …,’ specifically referencing Michael’s change in position relative to maintaining Theresa following the malpractice award. He recommended the feeding tube remain, a guardian other than Michael be appointed.”
Mr. Schiavo filed a bias complaint against Mr. Pearse. Mr. Wolfson seems to substantiate the bias claim, but provides no details in a report otherwise filled with details. I find this very curious.
So, why has the Schiavo case become a federal issue? I think there are several reasons.
- Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, has a family with another woman. After the malpractice award, he had a falling out with the Schindler family. His financial incentive appears substantial. Beyond the malpractice award we do not know if or how much life insurance Terri carried, but she did work at Prudential.
- Florida is unusual in that it lumps food and water together with medications in state laws dealing with the mentally incapacitated or terminally ill.
- The idea of “persistent vegetative state” or PVS, is confusing and controversial. Unlike someone in a coma, who looks more dead than alive, PVS cases wake up and give some indications of being alive on a daily basis.
In short, Terri appears to have potential for rehabilitation (at least to lay persons), yet it appears to much of the world that Mr. Schiavo is trying to use court-ordered starvation to be rid of her. Secondly, the “right to die” crowd has jumped on this case to promote their agenda. And to many Americans, the “right to die” camp wants death for infants (abortion), death for the infirm or defective (euthanasia) but is opposed to death for terrorists, murderers, child rapists and other convicted criminals. And unfortunately, there is great uncertainty as to whether Mrs. Schiavo wants to die.
As to the recent federal intervention in the case, David Corn of CommonDreams.org tries to make the case that President Bush behaved hypocritically by signing legislation to grant Terri federal court review. His evidence is that as governor of Texas, Bush signed the “Texas Advance Directives Act,” which “may include a decision to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment from the patient.” Being on a heart-lung machine seems like life-sustaining treatment. Most people do not consider food and water to be “medical treatment.”
Mr. Wolfson concluded his report by saying that given the constraints of Florida law the courts and doctors had done a fine job, but with the hardened family positions, to obtain justice for Terri it would be necessary to go back to square one with a court-appointed guardian.
Unfortunately, as the recent federal and appeals court reviews have demonstrated, justice has little to do with the law anymore.