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Watching the news shows discuss Terri Schiavo

by John Kelly

Terri Schiavo stories in Ragged Edge
Just finished watching Terri Schiavo being covered on last night's Nightline, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and Hardball With Chris Matthews. All the coverage was framed in terms of the "Right to Die." One theme of that runs throughout all the coverage, completely separate from the family dispute, whether she was in a persistent vegetative state or not, or even her wishes, was the simple yes or no question of could she recover. This last is an interesting, and scary development. As in the CNN poll, this question exists outside of all context and asks simply , why should this person live if there is no possibility of recovery? As Michael Schiavo reportedly said, "When is this bitch going to die?"

Mr. Dripping Condescension, Ted Koppel, expressed this beautifully by asking Terri's father, "Mr. Schindler, beyond the emotional attachment every father obviously has for his child , what's the point here? Many doctors are saying, and apparently doctors who have a lot of expertise in this area , that your daughter is effectively in a vegetative state, this battle that you have waged, what's the point?" [close to verbatim] As if, if Terri does not "recover" to some normal level of functioning, she is just a vegetable in the refrigerator that really should just be thrown out after so many years. You can just see the direction in which biodeathics is moving, namely that people should have to prove themselves worthy of continued life to receive such extraordinary measures as the medical treatment known as nutrition. Koppel, by the way, was by far the worst. In two consecutive questions, he said "You do realize..."

Koppel's pro-death guest, a Jesuit priest, tossed around words like "ordinary versus extraordinary" (as in a feeding tube is extraordinary intervention), "burden" and "dignity." The feeding tube, it turns out, interferes with nature, and nature really should be allowed to take its course. As I watched, I was burdened with the extraordinary intervention of a helper moving a spoon across a chemical combination consisting mostly of nitrogen and oxygen (which exerted a frictional drag on the spoon , and may well have reduced the life of both the spoon and the helper's arm, and may not , in any cost benefit analysis, have been worth it) towards my mouth, where she then deposited the nutritional supplement known as curried lentil soup. With no dignity left , I was then further burdened with extraordinary infusions of mashed potatoes and broccoli.. (Sarcasm alert!)

After watching Florida State Senator Webster on Nightline, with his ineffective argument that Terry was "alive," it was a great relief to see Florida Speaker of the House Johnny Bird take on, first, a Florida biodeathicist, and then a Florida U.S. Congressman. He emphasized that there were conflicts of interest here, what with Michael Schiavo's financial stake, and that the next step is for a guardian ad litem to be appointed, which he said was written into the bill. I haven't seen any notice of this before, but I trust that he knows what he is talking about.

Ray Sanchez on the NewsHour was not completely awful. The biodeathicist, Kenneth Goodman, first emphasized that the "withdrawal of artificial hydration and nutrition does not cause a terrible death. If that was the case, the law in this and 49 other states would not permit it."

I love these kinds of arguments by moral appeal. Rather like Thomas Jefferson could not have fathered a child with Sally Hemmings, because he was the father of our country, and why would the father of our country ever do a thing like that? He says that a persistent vegetative state means that "she's not seeing, she's not hearing, and she's not feeling." Alyson Perry told me today that in the early part of the 20th century, there was no need for institutionalized disabled people to have heat or fans, because they did not feel the same way the rest of "us" did.

Peter Jennings looked at the case in the "Closer Look" section, and tipped off immediately where he stood. Jennings is a master of the subtle intonation, the choice word insinuation, the ironic lifted eyebrow. After summarizing the case, he said "and then Florida politicians got involved." The key word here being, of course, "politicians," to let us know that this was all about politics. We got to see the "objective" views of Dr. Ronald Cranford, a notorious biodeathicist, who said that no matter what we see on the videos, there is no hope of recovery at all. Then we got to see liberal constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe saying that the Supreme Court would definitely uphold the right to die.

Chris Matthews interviewed Johnny Bird, who really does look like he might be running for higher office, along with Democratic Congressional representative Peter Deutsch. Bird again discussed conflicts of interest, and when Deutsch went off on him ("are you going to adjudicate every single case in the state?" harangue, harangue), he calmly said that the law was very narrow, and only dealt with where the family was in conflict. When he mentioned that Michael Schiavo had a conflict of interest, Chris Matthews said, "well he's kept her alive for 13 years, hasn't he?" Matthews also kept insisting on asking, can't we get some objective medical views of whether she can recover or not?

And of course, the whole thing was framed as the Republicans throwing a bone to the religious right. Both Congressman Deutsch tonight and Bill Press last night were just apoplectically furious that this should be going on. Of course, this is no surprise to Not Dead Yet activists who have actually encountered these people at Hemlock society meetings.

Now I am watching New England Cable News' News Tonight, where the first question the anchor asks the physician on the panel is, "does she have any chance of recovery," and the physician says no, of course not, she is just like Karen Quinlan. Next question is of a liberal state senator, who agrees with the leading question that the legislature had no business going into this case, and completely overstepped its bounds. Third panelist argues that there really should be a consensus among the family, and that to him and people he knows food is not an extraordinary intervention, and he gets immediately hectored with "but court after court after court has decided against them." The doctor calls the feeding tube "artificial hydration and nutrition." Both panelists are incredibly pro-death. The doctor says that "medical ethics and the law are absolutely clear on this case." He compares a persistent vegetative state to having the top of your head cut off, so that only the brainstem is left. The person can think and feel absolutely nothing. The lawyer says that the law is obviously unconstitutional. Finally, our third panelist agrees that the legislature really should not have intervened. So there you have it: An honest examination of the facts.

Now I am watching "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. Terri Schiavo is "comatose." Actually mentions that the family was not allowed to visit her at the hospital, but that they will be allowed to visit her back at the hospice, where she is being transferred.. Whoops, that's all we need from this story, time to shift to the more sensational case in Colorado, where the man just before going into a coma asks his wife to harvest his sperm and start family without him. Oh well.

Posted Oct. 23, 2003

John B. Kelly is a Boston-based disability activist working on a Ph.D. in Sociology at Brandeis University. His most recent piece for Ragged Edge was Inspiration.

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