The Schiavo Case: Bearing False Witness


My take on the Terri Schiavo case.

I respect differing opinions on the issue of "sanctity of life" vs. "quality of life." I understand that there are legitimate concerns about ending the life of a profoundly disabled person on a third party's decision.

But as I said in the column, the level of hysteria, hate, and lies around this issue—coming from the "pro-life" side—is revolting.

The new material I've come across since writing the column confirms that opinion.

There is, for instance, this National Review article about Terri Schiavo's medical prognosis—written by Rev. Robert Johansen, who is not a physician—which claims that Schiavo never had an MRI. Well, it seems that she did have one in 1990 several month after her collapse, according to a report by one of the expert witnesses and to excerpts from Schiavo's medical records posted at a conservative pro-life website that strongly supports keeping Schiavo alive. ("7/24/1990—MRI Report Dr. Pinkston. profound atrophy w/ very atrophic appearing cortex. Mild white matter disease, anoxic/hypoxic injury.") The Rev. Johansen's claim that a leading expert witness for Michael Schiavo, Dr. Ronald Cranford, had earlier misdiagnosed a minimally conscious patient as being in a persistent vegetative state appears to be false as well.

There is also the fact that Dr. William Hammesfahr, the only one of the eight neurologists to examine Schiavo who asserted that she was not in a persistent vegetative state, has been touted (by Fox News' Sean Hannity, among others) as an outstanding physician who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. In fact, his "nomination" consists of a letter from his Congressman to the Nobel Committee stating that he deserves to be nominated for the "Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine" (the Committee was no doubt impressed). Dr. Hammesfahr is the practitioner of a questionable method of treatment for stroke survivors that is generally not recognized in the medical profession (in plain English, he may be a quack); he has been disciplined by the Florida Medical Board and has never published in legitimate peer-reviewed journals.

There is plenty to be said about the junk science in this case—for instance, the 17 affidavits submitted in support of the parents' claim that Schiavo may not be vegetative by medical experts (who never examined Schiavo and based their conclusions on viewing short video clips). Interestingly, the affidavits have been removed from the site, but an extensive and persuasive critique of them can be found here. In the hysterical atmosphere that reigns among the "pro-Terri" blogs, any dubious claim spread like wildfire. A medical blog called CodeBlueBlog claims that the image of Schiavo's brain scan shows far less deterioration than most exerts have asserted, and that her bone scan shows signs of physical abuse. I haven't been able to find out much about the blogger, apparently a Florida-based radiologist named Dr. Thomas Boyle; I do know, however, that not long ago, he also claimed that the altered appearance of Ukrainian presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko was caused not by (later confirmed) poisoning with dioxin but by a combination of excessive drinking and rosacea covered with makeup. He has also claimed, on the basis of recent published photos of Bill Clinton after heart surgery, that the former President actually has cancer or AIDS. CodeBlueBlog sports a "2004 Medical Weblogs Awards: Best Clinical Sciences Weblog" blurb, but the awards seem to be decided by online votes from fewer than 200 readers on another medical site.

(By the way, it's also worth noting that according to the GAL report, at the 2000 trial over Terri Schiavo's guardianship her parents did not dispute that she was indeed in a persistent vegetative state.)

Worse yet, however, have been the outright slanders directed at Terri Schiavo's husband Michael. Schiavo's "supporters" have circulated an affidavit by a nurse who cared for Terri Schiavo for several months in 1995-96. Iyers claims that Michael was abusive toward his incapacitated wife and said things like "When is that bitch gonna die"; she also claims that her voluminous notes indicating that Terri was conscious, responsive, and trying to communicate were regularly deleted from Terri's charts, and that another nurse at the convalescent center who was on friendly terms with Michael Schiavo may have been killing patients. (No record exists of her ever making a police report, and she did not come forward with her story until 2003.) Not surprisingly, the much-maligned Judge Greer dismissed this bizarre statement as "not credible," which has not kept Iyer from being interviewed on CNN and Fox. Terri Schiavo's family and friends have appeared before the cameras as well to spout wild charges that Michael may have been an abuser and may have murdered Terri (odd how this never came up until the dispute over the feeding tube began).

I have to say that when I first started paying attention to this case I thought, like many other people, that there was something shady about Michael Schiavo and that, if nothing else, the guy was a creep. The more I've learned about the details, the more I've been sympathetic to this man. The two guardian ad litem reports are generally very positive about his role in caring for his stricken wife in the early years of her condition (even the first report, which concluded that Michael had too much of a financial conflict of interest to be a reliable witness to Terri's expressed desire not to be kept alive; more on that later). The worst that can be said about him, perhaps, is that when he testified at the malpractice trial on his claim for damages for the loss of his wife's consortium and her medical expenses, he wasn't entirely forthcoming about the fact that he had pretty much given up on prospects of viable treatment for Terri. It is worth noting, however, that in 1998 he offered to donate all of her estate (primarily the money left from the $750,000 portion of the award allocated to her medical care) to charity if the Schindlers withdrew their objections to the termination of artificial feeding and hydration for Terri. (Rather bafflingly, the site, which reproduces this letter, lists as one of the "myths" about Terri the notion that "Michael Schiavo volunteered to donate the balance of the inheritance to charity." And why, pray, is it a myth? Because he only made this offer on the condition that "Terri's parents would agree to her death by starvation." The site also claims that "the proposal came after a court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem cited Schiavo's conflict of interest since he stood to inherit the balance of Terri's medical fund upon her death." But the letter from Michael Schiavo's attorney to the Schindlers' attorney is dated October 21, 1988, and the GAL report is dated December 29, 1988.)

Interesting, by the way, how the "pro-lifers" simultaneously charge that Michael just wants to get rid of Terri because she's a burden to him, and scream, "Why doesn't he just divorce her and let her parents care for her?" Well, if he did see her as nothing more than a burden, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to get a divorce and move on with his life. Maybe he won't divorce her because he does feel responsible for carrying out her wishes, and doesn't want to leave her in the hands of the delusional parents who would have her linger on in her living death. But there are, of course, other explanations. Here's a charming one from Eric Cohen in The Weekly Standard: "And while one would think that divorce was the obvious solution, this was more than Michael Schiavo apparently could bear, since it would require a definitive act of betrayal instead of a supposed demonstration of loyalty to Terri's wishes." (That's right: Michael Schiavo is willing to be vilified as a murderer rather than face the stigma of divorcing his disabled wife.) At American Digest, Gerald Vanderleun suggests that Michael Schiavo wants his wife dead because he wants to sell the book and movie rights. (Of course, it was the Schindlers who turned the case into a public circus, but … oh, never mind.) This particularly odious sliming is dutifully linked by Michelle Malkin.

I could go on and on (I already have). I apologize for the length of this post, but I'm very angry right now, at the hysteria and the lies, at the collective insanity unfolding on the news. There are people claiming, and barely being challenged by interviewers, that Terri Schiavo is still trying to talk, smiling, and lifting her arms to "dance" in response to music. (If she were conscious and being slowly killed by hunger and thirst, would that be a likely response?) There's the preposterous story by the lawyer who claimed that she elicited the beginning of an "I want to live" from Terri—which, of course, conveniently happened with no witnesses and no tape recorder, and which this lawyer waited to report for a week after the removal of Terri's feeding tube. For most of the people who are championing this cause, this is not about protecting Terri Schiavo's rights. I heard one of the protesters say on the news, "It's not what Terri would have wanted, it's what God wants." I don't think the religious right is our own homegrown Taliban, but maybe it's about as close to a Taliban as you can have in modern American society. These are people who really do want the state to enforce their vision of "what God wants." In the name of this cause, apparently, it's more than okay to forget that little Ten Commandments thing about bearing false witness.