Saving Terri Schiavo

Article excerpt

At exactly 3:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on October 21, 2003, wild screams were heard in a quiet suburban town in central New Jersey and, simultaneously, in a quiet desert community in southern California. Two women were yelling, "We did it; we actually did it! We helped to save Terri Schiavo !" The two women were ourselves, Vickie Travis and Audrey Ignatoff, and we were exhilarated at having been part of the worldwide Internet effort to save the life of the disabled Florida woman whom a judge had sentenced to death by starvation and dehydration. We had just been listening to a live radio broadcast from the Florida Legislature at the moment when the final vote of the Florida Senate came in, concurring with the House to reinstate Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, which had been removed by court order six days before.

Make no mistake about it, Terri's Law represented a great victory, not only for Terri Schiavo and her family, but also for all people concerned with patients' rights and the quality of health care in America. It resulted from a nonstop worldwide Internet effort that began in the early morning hours of October 11 and continued until the vote came in.

October had been an emotional roller-coaster for Terri's supporters. On October 10, Judge Richard Lazzara of the Federal District Court in Florida was due to rule on Judge George Greer's September decision to remove Terry's feeding tube. Many of these supporters were so sure the case would be settled in Terri's favor that they relaxed a bit the week before October 10, and even took the time to produce a video of Terri, using still pictures from her website and some video footage sent from Florida. Thus, when Judge Lazzara stated that the case was not in his jurisdiction, the blow landed all the harder.

The Internet ride had started gaining momentum even before then when "Dawn," a psychotherapist and mandated abuse reporter who prefers not to be identified, called in to the Highway 2 Health Internet radio program to ask, "Where are the mandated abuse reporters in Terri's network?" Many states have instituted programs through which suspected child abuse can be reported-by trained "mandated reporters"-and investigated. Some states, of which Florida is one, extend this program to adults who are vulnerable by reason of disability or illness. In Florida, statute 415.103 addresses this question and permits intervention. Even before Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, requested a court order to kill her by withholding food and water, he had, according to nurses and other credible witnesses, refused to let her enter rehabilitative therapy and had even forbidden the use of antibiotics to treat an infection. This, as Dawn put it, "is physically and psychologically abusive and meets criteria for mandated intervention."

Dawn pointed out that whereas coverage of Terri's case has focused on right-to-die issues, in fact the real issues at the heart of Terri's case are about right to treatment and enforcement of this right. She added: "Terri's moral and legal right to treatment supersedes the guardian's right to deny same."

Dawn was intense. "Homicide is not an acceptable treatment modality.... It's not okay to deny treatment to people and then proceed to terminate them because they didn't get any better, which is essentially what is being contemplated in Terri's case. What kind of a 'treatment option' is this?"

While Dawn, Audrey, Vickie, Highway 2 Health, The Hospice Patients' Alliance, and many other groups and individuals worked frantically to help Terri, the judicial machinery ground on. As stated above, on October 10 Judge Lazzara ruled that he did not have jurisdiction to protect Terri's right to treatment. In the early hours of October 11, Dawn meditated and prayed, seeking a way to achieve maximum impact within a very limited timeframe.

Soon she felt guided to intensify the effort she had begun on that Highway 2 Health program to conceptualize the issues as right to treatment and enforced protection of that right when necessary. …