Remembering the Death of Terri Schiavo; Care of the Helpless Is Not a Choice but a Moral Obligation

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 31, 2010 | Go to article overview

Remembering the Death of Terri Schiavo; Care of the Helpless Is Not a Choice but a Moral Obligation


Byline: Cathy Ruse, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Five years ago, Terri Schindler Schiavo died after having been refused food and water for two weeks, by order of a judge, in what writer Nat Hentoff called the longest public execution in American history.

The drama of Terri's life and death was played out in the news for weeks. Complex seemed to be the watchword for many, but some things were simple and clear. Terri was a woman living with severe disabilities. She wasn't comatose or brain dead ; she wasn't terminally ill or dying. Her heart beat on its own and her lungs worked without assistance.

But Terri could not feed herself without assistance, a limitation that actor Christopher Reeve also experienced for years before his death.

The media portrayed it as a right to die case. An ABC News Poll, repeated ad nauseam over the course of those weeks, claimed that 63 percent of Americans wanted to see Terri die. The poll was a fraud. It said Terri was on life support, which she wasn't, and that she had no consciousness, which was hotly disputed. It framed the question as whether she should be kept alive or allowed to die - words freighted with meaning. Imagine if those polled had been asked whether she should be allowed to continue living or allowed to eat or whether her parents should be allowed to feed her. I believe Americans are better than this poll reflected.

To frame it as a right to die is to distort not only the facts, but the notion of true freedom - to reduce it to a radical individualism that renders every other person a threat to your freedom and therefore your enemy. What a terrible irony that the media allowed a puerile, self-absorbed husband to appear to be defending his wife's freedom to die when clearly the only freedom he was pursuing was his own.

Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote: For all the attention we have paid to the Schiavo case, we have asked many of the wrong questions. We have asked whether she is really in a persistent vegetative state, instead of reflecting on what we owe people in a persistent vegetative state. We have asked what she would have wanted as a competent person imagining herself in such a condition, instead of asking what we owe the person who is now with us, a person who can no longer speak for herself, a person entrusted to the care of her family and the protection of her society. …

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