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Who 'owns' Terri Schiavo?

by Mary Johnson

On last night's Nightline, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, ABCWorld News Tonight and Hardball, writes JOHN KELLY, all the coverage was framed in terms of the "right to die." MORE

Terri Schiavo stories in Ragged Edge

Less than a day after Terri Schiavo had her food and water restored, media pundits have begun the pontificating. Schiavo is all but lost in the larger discussion, which turns out is about the right to life vs the right to die. There has been virtually no mention of disability rights -- or the issues disability rights activists have attempted to raise -- in this whole sorry sordid saga.

St. Petersburg Times's Mary Jo Melone, in an Oct. 23 column headlined "Schiavo's life confiscated by agendas of strangers," called the hastily-passed law allowing FL Gov. Jeb Bush to order Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted "a breathtaking display of mob rule."

"The side that could generate enough e-mails to the governor and the Legislature won," she wrote. (Read article from St. Petersburg Times ).

An Associated Press analysis piece printed in Newsday framed the actions by Bush and FL legislators as a victory for the national right to life movement, noting nothing about disability rights efforts.

Oct. 23's New York Times's analysis by reporter Adam Liptak quotes constitutional law experts who say Florida lawmakers' action -- a Terri-Schiavo specific law to require her feeding tube reinserted -- "has created a constitutional crisis," comparing Bush's action to "Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama and other Southern officials defied federal court orders concerning school desegregation and protest marches," -- although, Liptak goes on to note that "the situation in Florida is not precisely analogous." (Read article; free registration required.)

Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, told the New York Times that "the central problem is that the law violates Mrs. Schiavo's rights. 'Because the state is obviously not trying to determine what she wanted or would have wanted,' Professor Tribe said, 'but rather is deciding what should happen, it fundamentally violates her right to bodily integrity.' "

The problem, say disability activists, is that the courts have accepted legal husband Michael Schiavo's beliefs about what Terri Schiavo would have wanted, over her parents' beliefs -- and nobody really knows what Terri Schiavo would have wanted. Activists believe that Michael Schiavo has acted badly toward his wife, obtaining a settlement for a malpractice suit he filed against her and then not permitting her therapy.

These issues, though, -- and many others, such as the fact that receiving nourishment via feeding tube is not "extraordinary" and that people can and do live happy and fulfilling lives with such devices -- have not made it into the national analysis -- so far.

Posted Oct. 23, 2003

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge.

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