Schiavo New Symbol of Culture War? Those with Special Causes Were Quick to Come to Support of Parents

By Patton, Charlie | The Florida Times Union, April 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Schiavo New Symbol of Culture War? Those with Special Causes Were Quick to Come to Support of Parents


Patton, Charlie, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Charlie Patton, The Times-Union

It remains a matter of dispute whether Terri Schiavo would have chosen to die rather than linger in what many medical experts have called a persistent vegetative state.

Her husband insists she would have chosen death; her parents disagree and argue there was hope for recovery.

What is indisputable now is that if Schiavo wanted death with dignity, she didn't really get it.

Instead she became a symbol in what University of North Florida history professor David Courtwright calls America's ongoing culture wars.

Whether she would have wanted to or not, she became a martyr for those who rallied to the cause of what President Bush called "the culture of life."

People make decisions every day to withhold certain kinds of medical treatment and allow loved ones to die, said Jonathan Moreno, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Biomedical Ethics. In the past 30 years, physicians, hospitals, nursing homes and the courts have been "remarkably successful in keeping the focus on what the patient would have wanted, not the wishes of others, and identifying those in the best position to know their preferences," Moreno said. "By virtue of that approach, these decisions are made daily and hundreds of times throughout the country."

But for a variety of reasons the argument over whether Schiavo, who was 26 in February 1990 when she suffered cardiac arrest resulting in brain damage, should be allowed to die (or forced to die, depending on the viewpoint) became a very public, very angry debate.

"There's been a national death watch in which both sides have resorted to vilification," said Courtwright, who is at work on a book about the culture wars. "This is classic culture war polarization."

Most experts agree that the most important factor in making Schiavo a public figure was the irreconcilable split among her survivors -- Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband and legal guardian, and the Schindlers, her parents and siblings.

The Schindlers found plenty of support among anti-abortion activists who saw the argument over Terri Schiavo's life as an extension of their efforts to outlaw abortion.

"The effort to reinstate Terri's feeding tube and the pro-life position stem from the same ethics," James Dobson, the founder of Focus on Family, a conservative Christian organization, told U.S. News. ". . . All human life is of value, regardless of the human's stage of development, level of health or ability."

While most religions have no established official position on the morality of removing feeding tubes from people in persistent vegetative states, the pope has said it is wrong.

In a statement issued March 20, 2004, John Paul II said, "I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory."

Not all Catholics endorsed that decision. Thomas Shannon, a professor of humanities and arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, argued that the pope's position ran contrary to 500 years of Catholic tradition that it is an individual's right to receive only the level of medical care they want.

"She is in a persistent vegetative state," Shannon said. "All they are doing is maintaining biological life and that's all. That comes close to making a false god out of life. It seems to be bordering on idolatry."

Disabled rights activists such as the organization Not Dead Yet have argued that as a disabled person, Schiavo had a right to continue living.

"People on the right are killing us slowly with cuts to the budget and Medicaid while the people on the left kill us quickly and call it 'compassion,' " said Stephen Drake, a research analyst for Not Dead Yet. …

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