2005-04-07 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s AttitudeBy Neil S. Friedman

Not since the legendary 19th century hillbilly feud between the Hatfields and McCoys has America witnessed such a display of loathing between two families than the bitter, legal dispute between her husband and her parents.

Even after the severely brain-damaged woman died last week in a Florida hospice, thirteen days after a state court judge mercifully refused to reinsert her feeding tube, the tension between the unyielding parties continued over her final disposition. No sooner was she pronounced dead last Thursday than both parties planned separate funerals. Just as they fought over her in life, the conflict continued as they battled over her body.

In the end, Michael Schiavo, the husband who had the ultimate legal right to make the decision, opted for cremation after an autopsy, while her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, had hoped for a traditional Catholic burial in a family plot.

The rift between Terri’s parents and her husband was instigated in 1993 after Schiavo won a million-dollar malpractice settlement on Terri’s behalf. It degenerated when after patiently sitting at Terri’s bedside for years, he started a family with a live-in girlfriend that prompted the Schindlers to call him an adulterer not fit to continue as their daughter’s guardian.

Nevertheless, you’d have thought that after she died there’d finally be a sense of closure and a dash of dignity for the woman, who doctors diagnosed as in a “permanent vegetative state,” particularly after weeks of litigation when the Supreme Court and other judicial channels rejected numerous parental requests to reverse the decision.

May Teresa Marie Schindler Schiavo rest in peace because even in her lingering state of unawareness, she was the focus of disputes and disagreements. Despite being hospitalized since she suffered a heart attack at age 26 reportedly caused by a potassium deficiency resulting from alleged bulimia that left her in a vegetative state for the last 15 years — and particularly the final two weeks — she became a pawn in a clash over modern technology and right-to-life proceedings.

When a Florida court upheld Michael Schiavo’s wishes three weeks ago, President Bush intervened when he signed an emergency bill that Congress hurriedly passed enabling the Schindlers to have federal courts hear their appeal. Florida Governor Jeb Bush also asked state courts for permission to take custody of Schiavo. But every court had turned down the Schindlers, so the president and the governor could do no more.

Nevertheless, it was appalling when grandstanding politicians exploited and public opinion intruded. The fate of Terri Schiavo should have remained a private family matter, not fodder for 24-hour news-hungry media. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see America’s courts act judiciously and allow the situation to take a natural course.

Knowing the media’s omnipresent eyes were focused, members of Congress just couldn’t resist interfering in what developed into a public spectacle more suitable for celebrity trials and publicity-hungry VIPs rather than a private family matter.

Perhaps after an overwhelming majority of the American public told pollsters it didn’t want the government intervening in cases of family life and death matters, politicians will mind their own business and butt out in such cases in the future!

What is noteworthy about the Terri Schiavo case is that it drew attention to the magnitude of a living will, regardless of one’s age or health. It may also result in millions of healthy Americans drawing up living wills to prevent such debates from taking center stage again.

Terri Schiavo left no written directive of her wishes, though her husband said all along she had expressed the path he followed, to guide those who must determine her fate. That’s tragically common. Few, especially twentysomethings, ever execute a living will or other written instructions for their health care — or even think about it. But they are most vulnerable: according to statistics 80 percent of patients classified in a persistent vegetative state are aged 18 to 30.

While her family was unrelenting in the struggle for their daughter’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for more than a third of her natural life Terri Schiavo could not enjoy those privileges.

Every human life is precious, yet it is imperative that each person’s dignity and desires are safeguarded and adhered to by those assigned the legal right. While politicians, judges and unrelated others may express their opinions in end-of-life situations, they have no right to interfere — with or without a living will.

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