Symbolism and the Terri Schiavo Case

Article excerpt

FOR SEVERAL WEEKS in March, many of us agonized, argued, and wept as the human drama of Terri Schiavo's life and death played out on our television screens and in practically every form of media available.

One could certainly argue that Schiavo should never have been in the media to begin with. Daily, hundreds, more likely thousands, of families--including this writer's--must make end-of-life decisions for their loved ones. Most such decisions are made within the privacy and warmth of the family unit.

But, that unit was broken in Schiavo's case--the result of a rift between her parents, the Schindlers, and her husband, Michael Schiavo. Some of the principals decided to argue their cases in public forums, precipitating a "media circus" and a lab for those who study the manipulation of symbols.

Schiavo herself became a symbol for many who face death--no longer in control of her life yet hanging on to it, surrounded by people yet facing the ultimate outcome alone. Many of us watching the events have agonized as a loved one went through a similar process. As my family told my mother as she lay dying after a long bout with cancer, "we will be with you to the doorway, but we can't cross through it with you." She died in her own bedroom, with all of us around her and me holding her hand.

The difference in the Schiavo case was that her journey to the door became an "opportunity" for people with larger agenda. I'm not writing about the Schindlers or her husband here, although they did participate in the circus in their attempts to do what they thought was right for Terri.

I'm writing about the various advocate groups that argued during Schiavo's journey, politicians who saw an opportunity to push an agenda and many in the media, who exploited a human tragedy for the sake of a "big story."

Right-to-life groups used religious symbols liberally in arguing that Schiavo was being "killed" and "starved to death." They talked about a "culture of death" in the country, pointing to parallels between Schiavo's death and abortion.

Right-to-die advocates argued that Schiavo was being artificially sustained by the feeding tube, and that her case was just another example of what we can do with "high tech medicine." They talked of "death with dignity" and argued that Terri was being denied that.

Some said Schiavo was a disability case. Others said she was not.

Higher Order Abstractions

Advocates on all sides pushed what general semanticists might call "higher order" abstractions, and used the individual case of Schiavo to make broad generalizations and value judgments.

At the root of the dispute was the age-old question of "when does death occur?" The arguments, however, used deliberately chosen words and symbols to air the viewpoints of the various advocates on that question. People were actually arguing about their own "world views" and "value assumptions" about life and death in general, not necessarily looking at the very specific life and death of Terri Schiavo.

Of course, politicians often manipulate symbols to further their worldviews and value assumptions. So, conservative politicians like Tom Delay and others talked about the "right to life" and the "love of family" and "liberal judges" who "legislate" through their decisions. President Bush said it was always better to "err on the side of life."

Trampled by the 11th hour Congressional action, and Bush's signing of it, were the broader principles of American government, such as separation of state and church, states' rights, and the checks and balances between the legislative branch and judicial branch of government.

Very few public figures spoke up about these things. They feared being portrayed as crass and un-caring. Many "liberals" crossed lines and voted for the Schiavo bill.

Many on both sides of the political aisle undoubtedly knew that the Congressional action would be ineffective; that it would be found unconstitutional. …