Monday, April 18, 2005

Final Reflections on the Terri Schiavo Case

Now that the hysteria over the Terri Schiavo case has subsided, some final reflections may be in order. It is at heart a simple matter involving only three items. 1. The background is that law and practice for the last decade and more have established the right of patients to control their own medical treatment, to refuse it or to stop it at their will. When the patient is unable to do so, properly instructed proxies may act in their behalf. 2. Florida law provides that the spouses, not the parents of patients, may speak for them when the patient is unable. 3. Florida courts found factually that the husband Michael correct represented his wife's wishes in this case. That is all there is to the case, and the courts at every level, including the Supreme Court of the United States, repeatedly reaffirmed this.

It is unfortunate and a tragedy that the family was divided and became the source of the great uproar, generated largely by the need of cable news stations to fill time 24.7. The drama was ready made for exploitation on all hands, from the media to the fanatics. For TV it was wonderful for ratings: visual, dramatic, emotional, involved conflict, winners and losers, and plenty of people informed and uninformed, wise and foolish, hysterical and rational, eager to claim camera time.

Michael was tragically made the bad guy and had to endure all kinds of lies and irrelevant and factually absurd charges, and the courts sustained him every time. He was deeply in love in with his wife and never ceased to be. He cared for her lovingly and tenderly until the last hour, cradling her in his arms as she died. He sought the companionship of another woman after medical experts had convinced him that the Terri he loved so much was gone and would not come back ever. He maintained that Terri would have approved what he did.

I have some experience here. I cared for my wife after we were divorced and I was remarried until the day she died in a hospice. I sat and held her hand every day during her last days, and we tenderly confessed our love for each other. I was in her room along with our children the day she died and went to the pharmacy to get a prescription the nurses wanted to ease her pain. Eloise would have told you plainly that she trusted me more than anyone on earth -- along with our children -- to take care of her. I was close by and assumed responsibility down to the last detail of planning her funeral, taking the dress she was buried in to the cleaners, and putting a monument on her grave. Michael, I know how you felt. I applaud Michael for having the courage in the face of all the trashing and court suits he faced to insure that his wife's wishes were carried out.

Terri's parents and relatives, on the other hand, were in a state of deep denial for years. Had it not been for the fuss they raised, the case would never come to public attention. Note, the only reason this case claimed national attention was because of the family dispute over her care. Ventilators and feeding tubes are removed from hopelessly ill patients every day in this country by the will of patients or their authorized proxies. They do so by law and standard medical practice and in ways compatible with compassion and love. As a parent, I share the agony of the parents and siblings. But Michael was on the right side of this issue, and the courts rightly confirmed this over and over.

The Congress to its disgrace tried to interfere in areas where they have no business. Most Republican were exploiting the issue politically, and most of the Democrats were moral cowards hiding in caves. Both parties were out of touch with large majorities of the American people who had the good sense to see the issue in a humane way and wanted the Congress to do something about Social Security, Medicare, and health insurance for those without and stay out of the sick room. If members of Congress were ignorant of law and current practice, they should have informed themselves. I don't doubt that some had genuine convictions on the issue, but families not Congress should settle these issues.

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