Sunday, April 03, 2005

Outrages of the Terri Schiavo Case

With some exceptions the media have not served the public interest well in the Schiavo case. Most newspaper and TV reports leave you with the impression that the questions raised sprang to life out of nowhere with the conflict now dominating the news. This is far from the truth. Ethicist have debated end of life matters for many years. A long history of law and practice precedes the current controversies. Two significant cases mark major turn turning points. The Supreme Court of New Jersey granted the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan permission to remove a respirator (1975), and the Supreme Court of the United States allowed the parents of Nancy Cruzan to remove a feeding tube (1990). In 1990 Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act. Since then the right of patients or proxies to refuse or demand withdrawal of any kind of life-sustaining treatment or equipment has not been in question. Well established in law and practice, feeding tubes and respirators are removed without question all over the country daily when legitimate conditions are met. It would be helpful to the public debate if only these elementary facts were repeated by news sources as often as the video tapes showing Terri Schiavo in her bed. Viewing them, many lay people and even doctors in Congress have drawn erroneous conclusions about her mental state. Since doctors know better than to diagnose at the distance without having examined a patent, we must assume that the congressional doctors become authorities for political rather than medical reasons. Instead of consistently making clear the historical context, the media have focused on the immediate sensational aspects – the family conflict, who is winning and losing the battle, the protestors, and the zealots who offer much heat but not much light. At best they have attempted to define some medical terminology but have largely failed in illuminating the basic legal and moral issues that are in dispute. The event is perfect for TV. It is visual, dramatic, emotional, and involves conflict, winners and losers. The actions of Gov. Bush, the Florida legislature, President Bush and the Congress were outrageous. They have no business intruding into these intimate family matters where legal and moral guidelines are already in place. The Republicans in Congress are dominated by ruthless zealots, and most Democrats have been moral cowards. Only the state and federal judiciaries have acted with any dignity. When it is over, there will be many losers and no winners, except possibly Terri Schiavo if she is allowed to die in peace. It is a shame the media are not doing a better job of informing rather than just aggravating the public debate.

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