Life-Support Loonies, Go Home

Haleigh Poutre is no Terri Schiavo.


The case of Haleigh Poutre, the battered child at the center of a legal and medical dispute in Massachusetts, is so horrific as to evoke medieval tableaux of hell. This 11-year-old girl was failed by all the adults in her life, from her biological and adoptive families to social workers and medical professionals. Haleigh, who seems to be emerging from her four-month-long coma and has been moved from intensive care to a rehab center, would have been dead today if the stepfather charged in her near-fatal beating had not fought (most likely for self-interested reasons) to keep her alive.

This tragedy should have been a national outrage. Yet it has gotten only scant attention. Syndicated columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin blames this on a "post-Schiavo syndrome." After last year's pitched battle over whether Terri Schiavo should be kept alive in a vegetative state, most people shudder at the thought of a repeat. Malkin may well be right—but if so, the blame rests with the right-to-life advocates who made Schiavo their cause célèbre.

To put it simply: Haleigh Poutre is no Terri Schiavo. Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, and had undergone a barrage of tests showing that she had no higher brain functioning and no consciousness—a fact on which all unbiased medical experts agreed. (Her case had also undergone repeated court review.) Haleigh had been in a vegetative state since Sept. 11. After the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that she could be taken off life support, the girl began to show improvement.

Dr. Nancy Childs, a renowned brain injury specialist in Austin, Texas, told The Boston Globe that 16 percent of brain-injured adults recover after three months of unconsciousness. Neurologists also say that children, with their still-growing and more elastic brains, have a better prospect for recovery from brain injuries than adults.

Yet, shockingly, the state Department of Social Services (DSS) had first sought to terminate Haleigh's life support only three weeks after her hospitalization, after doctors declared her to be virtually brain-dead. Because her records are sealed, we don't know what tests were done to reach this conclusion. It certainly looks like the DSS showed unseemly haste in wanting life support discontinued.

This is the same DSS which had previously overlooked repeated signs that Haleigh was being severely abused. Adoptive mother Holli Strickland, who later committed suicide after being charged with assaulting Haleigh, had managed to convince the social workers that the girl's numerous physical injuries were self-inflicted. (If the child was so emotionally disturbed that she was constantly harming herself, shouldn't she have been placed into treatment?)

Some caution that the high cost of caring for comatose patients may become a financial incentive to end life support. Did such considerations influence the decision-making at the DSS? All of this warrants investigation. But, contrary to the overheated claims of right-to-life advocates, the officials and doctors are not death-happy ghouls: They were quick to order new tests after Haleigh's biological mother reported that she saw some signs of improvement.

All of us—journalists, politicians, concerned citizens—must make sure that Haleigh gets every chance at life she can have. I would suggest, however, that the vocal champions of Terri Schiavo's "right to live" stay away from this case. After the falsehoods and the hysteria they propagated about Schiavo, their involvement here could only do harm.

The "save Terri" movement turned a tragedy into a macabre circus. Politicians such as Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) and pundits such as Fox News' Sean Hannity embraced patently absurd claims that Schiavo was able to communicate and even talk. They made wildly misleading claims about the medical credentials of "experts" who said Schiavo could be conscious. They asserted that Schiavo's coma may have been caused by abuse from her husband, Michael.

With their cries of "medical terrorism" and their comparisons to Nazi Germany, these so-called champions of life created an atmosphere in which some of their supporters made death threats not only to Michael Schiavo but to judges and legislators who had been on the "wrong" side of the dispute.

This kind of support is the last thing Haleigh Poutre needs. Haleigh's cause should be championed—by those who have the moral authority and the credibility to speak about it. This case raises many disturbing issues, from the efficacy of child protection to care for comatose patients. It deserves to be in the spotlight; it does not deserve to be turned into Terri Schiavo II.