March 24, 2005

The Plight of Michael Schiavo

Rather than one coherent essay on an aspect of Terri and Michael Schiavo’s fight to let Terri pass on with dignity, this is a loosely-strung together collection of a few of my thoughts on the matter.

It is natural for the mind to believe, and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false. - Blaise Pascal

When I first heard of Terri Schiavo, maybe a year ago, it was on local talk radio. The show’s host was up in arms about how they were murdering this woman. At that time, he didn’t have very much information on the subject, yet he was incensed.

Yesterday I turned that same show on. I rarely agree with this man, but in the intervening year he has had time to review what available facts there are, and he’s completely changed his mind on the subject. He now sees that the parents are acting out their wishes without regard for what Terri would have wanted. Our gut reactions are often different than the opinions we form once we have broken through the initial media headline and gotten a closer look at the facts.

But how do I know what Terri would have wanted? I am basing that on what an excruciating trip through the legal system has unambiguously determined. Michael Schiavo has the legal right to execute Terri’s wishes, and that he is accurately representing them.

Can’t Let Go

It’s natural that the parents are distraught over this. Nobody wants to see their child’s life cut short. But a quick look at the actions of the Schindlers reveals that they have, over time, wandered away from reality and retreated to a fictional world that is more comfortable to them.

But it was not always that way. As with so many things, the rift between Schiavo and the Schindlers began with a dispute over money. So, too, the rift between the Schindlers and reality began to widen.

An article in the Miami Herald recounts:

In 2000, despite conceding their daughter’s persistent vegetative state, the Schindlers said they still believed she knew when they were there. When Felos, Michael Schiavo’s lawyer, asked Bob Schindler if he thought Terri would be tormented by her current state, he replied ”Yes,” but added, “she’s not that cognizant to be aware of it.”

Actually, the Herald article provides a number of illuminating points.

  1. The Schindlers have, at various times, conceded the severity of Terri’s situation.
  2. The Schindlers now cast Michael as an adulterous husband, but supported his dating early on. A cynical view might be that both opinions were motivated by their desire to gain custody. However, if we take them at their word, they thought at the time that dating was a healthy part of Michael moving on.
  3. The Schindlers felt betrayed by Michael when he didn’t share a vastly reduced malpractice award with them. Ironically, that money has now nearly all been spent on Terri and no longer exists to be argued over.
  4. Amid conflict of interest claims, Michael offered to donate Terri’s entire estate to charity if the Schindlers would give up their battle against his defense of Terri’s wishes. They refused. Michael has shown that he is motivated by concern for Terri and not any money. He’s turned down offers of a million, and even 10 million dollars.
  5. Court guardians have found that Terri has been treated well.
  6. As noted above, the Schindlers have conceded both that Terri would be tormented by her current state and that she is not cognizant of it.

At times, the Schindlers have articulated rational responses, but they persist in following with irrational conclusions and actions.

In point #2 above, they articulated that it was healthy for Michael to move on. However, people only move on when something is lost beyond retrieval. In Michael’s case, he feels his marriage counts for something, and his responsibility for Terri remains as long as she is kept in this state. The Schindlers would like to have it both ways. Is she lost beyond retrieval, or not? To them (apparently) Terri is no longer a fit wife, and they would like this to invalidate her marriage. They give the impression that Michael should move on and let them have her for their own purposes.

One might guess that their own purposes have to do with parenting Terri — fulfilling their duty as those who brought her into this world.

Parents In Grief

Terri’s father says he believes she would be tormented by her current state. Luckily, he further believes that she isn’t aware of that state. But were she aware, he’s clear. It would be torment.

This is an acknowledgment that Terri never wanted to end up in the sort of artificially induced state that is her current existence. As a parent, emotions are going to have their way with you. But it is reassuring that Terri’s parents at least have had moments where they saw through to Terri’s wishes.

Parental responsibility may run counter to a child’s wishes when that child has not reached adulthood, but the parent-child relationship must mature just as the child does. It must develop into a relationship of mutual respect. This is still a special relationship, but is now an adult relationship. Regardless of how incapacitated an adult becomes, one can never truly return to being a child. For whatever length of time, they had adult wants, desires and intentions.

The Schindlers, in wanting to ignore the law, Michael, witnesses and Terri’s own wishes, want Terri back as a child. In a real sense they’ve regressed her in their minds. They don’t want Terri the adult back — that Terri’s choices (those that go with the pact of marriage and decisions about her own future) are not to be honored. What is to be honored is her helplessness, her not-even-infantile level of physical functioning.

The Schiavos acknowledge that the adult Terri is gone, and they have further worked hard (perhaps unconsciously) to erase the adult Terri’s previous decisions.

In extreme grief, maybe that’s perfectly understandable. I feel strong sympathy for the parents because I can’t imagine their suffering. I don’t agree with what they’ve done and I don’t think it’s healthy for them, for Terri, for Michael or for anyone. But when you break from reality, you get what you get.

In this case, sadly, you get Terri, of whom nothing is left but a doll with some bodily functions upon which the Schindlers can project their parental feelings upon, but which can never return those feelings. Unfortunately, you get Michael trying to take the Schindler’s advice and move on, but he is held fast by a responsibility born out of love. It is his respect for the sanctity of marriage — his respect for Terri and the bond of his marriage to her.

Parents never take such a public oath. Parents do have a responsibility to their child. But the marriage supersedes that unless there is some indication the marriage had failed back when Terri was still able to communicate her wishes. There is no such indication.

The Cause

The people rallying to Terri’s cause are not her parents, and they do not share this emotional break from reality. They don’t have the same excuse.

I have very little respect for the lengths to which they have capitalized upon Terri’s hardship and the hardship of those directly involved.

I have not the time nor the interest to explore all of their machinations. And, I’m sorry to say, this is where my sympathy for the Schindlers ends as well. They have actively participated in the wielding of the media to manipulate me, you and everyone else.

Let me give what I feel is a representative example of the thought processes at work. I had a woman yesterday base her entire argument against Michael Schiavo and what the law ruled in his case — her entire opposition to Michael Schiavo, on her opinion that “he had the look of Scott Petersen.” Clearly, the courts failed to take such weighty evidence into consideration. A man who has suffered the tragedy of losing his wife, worked with her parents in exerting extraordinary effort to bring her back, and has stood by her partially-animated physical remains for 15 years has been reduced to being compared to a convicted killer based on a sound bite, or a picture on the news.

The height (or nadir) of this ridiculous situation is what’s recently happened in congress. But the Daily Show said it best.

We have huge and growing problems in this country. Health care is one of those enormous issues. But instead of even touching the problem of health care, they condescend to the cause of Terri. Is this, perhaps, a principled act of congress? I can’t think of anything more cynical. The legal fight has been going on for 12 years (Terri herself has been in this state for 15 years — longer than I or any of my college friends have been married) If congress had been concerned about the issues surrounding this case, ample time was available to explore the law.

No, the 11th hour is the time to stage a burlesque for the faithful and the brainless. I know principled people who believe the feeding tube should be replaced and Terri should not be allowed to die (for religious reasons). I respectfully disagree with that, but even those people see that congress is misguided. A show is being put on.

Congress seems to want to crawl inside the psychosis of the Schindlers and share that space for their own cynical reasons. The president solemnly returned from his vacation to sign the bill. We know he can’t be counted on to act the adult and set congress straight on their self-destructive behavior.

True leadership would take this opportunity to highlight the problems with our medical system. The money spent on Terri’s voodoo curse is a metaphor for the self-destructive course our entire medical establishment is on.

Medical Manipulation

There, of course, is the issue of what will happen to Terri as she is left to pass away.

I have it on medical authority that she will dehydrate (a natural process for people in such a situation) and that applying terms like “thirst” and “hunger” is inappropriate in that they apply to feelings that don’t exist for Terri and only serve to raise, in us, emotional images. She will not die of hunger. She will not starve to death. Rather, her bodily functions will cease from a lack of water and nutrition.

It is natural that without the artificial intervention that has kept her in a doll-like state, her body will simply cease to function. What is artificial is holding her in limbo when so much of her brain is gone that she has neither an existing quality of life nor any hope for recovery. It is artificial to agree to go along with the Schindler psychosis and enable them to maintain an object onto which they can project their parental feelings.

It’s no surprise that people have focused on such emotional words in Terri’s case. We’re emotional beings and we know the feelings of hunger. Come to your own conclusion as to whether you’re being cynically manipulated or inadvertently manipulated.


At the center of all this is the issue of marriage. I might as well say “at the center of the hypocrisy in all this.”

Over time we have been treated to squeals about the sanctity of marriage and how that institution would be damaged if the privilege were extended to those who want to marry those of the same sex.

Now, in our government, we see the actual value placed on the pact people form when they enter into the institution of marriage. Marriage denial is a convenient punishment to inflict on those segments of society for which the socially conservative harbor distaste. And in this way, marriage proves useful, proves that it has value.

When marriage gets in the way of our cynical political purposes, congress brushes it aside.


There has been no conclusion to this story for 15 years. They’ve zapped Terri’s brain in an attempt to get her back and all they got were responses to electrical stimulation that depressingly parody a living being. On and on it has gone.

It’s maddening to see that Michael Schiavo has had to struggle so long in this horrible limbo and that our government has fought tooth and nail to keep it going. And when the legal system repeatedly gave them no traction, the emotional twisting and media manipulation have allowed the “Save Terri” crowd to strike out at her husband for their purposes.

With any luck, we are only days away from this whole horrible nightmare being over. Or are we? If congress can reach down and assert itself like that in Terri’s case, what’s to say that if you wander into the wrong territory and present a good political football that you might not be the next subject of congress’ attention.

Far fetched? I would have said so before. It is beyond the pale that it has happened in the first place.

We are stuck with the aftermath of this case. In districts where it plays well, the second part of this gambit will surface. Every one of the democratic members of congress and senators who were forced to vote “Yes” on nonintervention in Terri’s case on their principles will have that vote come back to haunt them if the politics of the region are ripe for it.

A Glimmer

Just as I was finishing this, Patti sent me the following story:

“An ABC News poll conducted on Sunday found a 63 percent to 28 percent majority in favor of removing the feeding tube from Schiavo, who is severely brain-damaged. The poll also found that the public, by a margin of 70 percent to 27 percent, opposes congressional involvement in the case. Fully 67 percent of the poll’s participants thought members of Congress were more focused on using the Schiavo case for political advantage than on the principles involved.” - The Schiavo case: A political victory that wasn’t

Wonderful news about how people are seeing through the bullshit. In very few hours, a federal judge refused to order the feeding tube replaced, then this poll, and now a judge has refused a desperate bid for the State of Florida to take custody of Terri (again, treating her like a child) to get that tube put back in and continue this macabre exercise.

Perhaps this has gotten bad enough, ridiculous enough that we’ll be ready the next time it happens. Maybe nobody will ever have to go through this again. Until the next time Congress, Jeb and George want to intervene where they can do the most damage.

Additional Links:

Posted by James at March 24, 2005 3:41 PM
Create Social Bookmark Links

Yesterday, a concerned protestor was arrested for trying to sneak into the hospice with a cup of water for Terri.

A cup of water. The woman can't swallow. She could have drowned.

Certainly there are people who want to "save Terri" on philosophical grounds. But it appears that many of the protestors really have no understanding of what her condition really is. They think she's just a little slow, or that she is being murdered because she's paralyzed and inconvenient.

I can't completely blame them for their ignorance. The media have done an extremely poor job of reporting the facts of the case. All we ever see are the same four-second clips of her moaning and blinking. That is pretty much what the best of the Schindlers' "evidence" comes down to. It'd be helpful if they spent just half as much time looking at her CAT scans, which show a black hole where her brain used to be, or if they told us about her swallow tests (failed), or her EEGs (no activity).

Posted by: Julie at March 24, 2005 4:10 PM

Quite right. This is the essence of the turnaround in the opinion of the very conservative talk show host. Although his reactions were out of proportion. Initially he was completely outraged with very little knowlege, now he is outraged in the other direction. No middle ground, apparently, for that sort of talk show host.

Ignorance can be dangerous, and it's certainly downright scary to see president Bush participating ignorantly, and congress right there with him. You would think our elected officials could not only find a few brain cells to rub together, but a few spare moments to look at evidence rather than the Schindler family home movies.

Too much to ask?

Posted by: James at March 24, 2005 4:36 PM

"The Schindlers ... want Terri back as a child." That's an interesting observation. I never thought about it quite in those terms, but it does seem to have some merit.

Posted by: Jeff at April 5, 2005 9:01 PM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved