Symbolism and the Terri Schiavo Case

By Hoffmann, Gregg | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Symbolism and the Terri Schiavo Case


Hoffmann, Gregg, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Symbolism and the Terri Schiavo Case
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.