Lifers on the Loose

The appalling rhetoric in the Schiavo case


I wish I could see something good or noble in the political and media circus over the sad fate of Terri Schiavo—such as a nation's willingness to focus its attention on one person's life or death. No doubt, some people trying to keep Schiavo, or her body, alive are driven by sincere humanitarian passion. But, mostly, this spectacle has been a sickening display of cynicism and fanaticism.

According to every credible source, there's no such person as Terri Schiavo anymore. Her cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that governs consciousness, was destroyed 15 years ago by oxygen deprivation during a cardiac arrest. What remains is a body in a vegetative state, capable of physical reflexes including random eye movements, meaningless sounds, and facial contortions that may look like smiles or frowns.

Loved ones often wishfully mistake these reflexes for signs of awareness; no one blames Schiavo's parents for clinging to such hopes. Far more blameworthy are the know-nothing activists, politicians, and pundits who tout video clips of Schiavo as proof she is fully conscious. These clips of Schiavo exposed in her pathetic state strike me as a far worse indecency on television than Janet Jackson's exposed breast.

Let's leave aside for a moment the legal and constitutional issues. What's truly striking is the volume of hysteria and misinformation from Schiavo's so-called supporters.

There have been outlandish assertions that Schiavo can communicate and even talk, despite findings to the contrary by her doctors and court-appointed guardian. Miraculously recovered patients whose condition was in no way comparable to Schiavo's—such as Kate Adamson, who was unresponsive for 70 days and was misdiagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state—have been paraded on TV. A neurologist with right-to-life affiliations and limited expertise opined, without a medical examination or tests, that Schiavo may be minimally conscious—a claim one staunch conservative, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Public Health,dismisses as "politically generated junk science. "

The rhetoric flies high, with comparisons to Nazi Germany, concentration camps, and executions; with cries of "death by starvation" (is it "death by suffocation" to take a patient off a respirator?), "murder, " and "medical terrorism"—that last one from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Some have compared Terri to Jesus. Her husband Michael, who wants her feeding tube removed, has been compared to wife-killer Scott Peterson. On the website of the conservative National Review, writer Kathryn Jean Lopez railed at the feminist groups' lack of outrage that "a man—and his male lawyer and doctor—backed up by a male judge, is cutting off his wife's food." We live in bizarre times when a conservative chides feminists for not acting like professional male-bashers.

Amidst such hysteria, is it any wonder that some champions of "life" are making death threats against judges and legislators who have ruled or voted the "wrong" way?

The case does involve tough questions—about Michael Schiavo's integrity (though it's hard to sort out the conflicting and biased reports) and about the certainty that Terri Schiavo had expressed a wish not to be kept alive in this condition. But for the ideologues driving this campaign, those questions aren't the heart of the matter. In National Review, Princeton University jurisprudence professor Robert George, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, explicitly stated that even if fully known, Terri Schiavo's prior expressed wishes would be irrelevant, supposedly because we can't know ahead of time what we will want in a severely disabled state.

I'm not one to see a theocratic threat hiding under every bed. But here, the issue is whether life-and-death decisions are to be made by individuals within the law, or by the state on the basis on some people's understanding of what God wants. And I stress some people's: The majority of religious Americans support the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, and even evangelicals are evenly divided.

Is there hypocrisy on both sides? Sure. Some on the left might well be championing Schiavo's survival as a disability rights or women's rights cause if it weren't being championed by right-to-life conservatives. The liberals who lambaste Republicans for trampling states' rights like federalism only when it suits them. But two wrongs don't make a right; and what the right is doing in the Schiavo's case is indeed a great wrong.