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Vows Given and Received

The Schiavo Case

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 23, 2005.

By law, Terri Shiavo made her decision when she got married. What do we know now that she didn’t know then that would nullify vows given and received? There’s no way to pat this case into digestible shape. Her feeding tube will not be reconnected, and she will soon go into shock and die, or starve. God forbid she should pass with the ease of the opiates available less she become addicted in her final days.

Doctors are sure she won’t feel it anyway, or experience any sensation. I’ve listened to Medicine change its tune several times in my life, and I’m not convinced. Still, I’m in agreement that we need to follow the existing law, not create new ones at political need for Schiavos or Schwarzeneggers, and to honor Ms. Schiavo’s wishes not to live on a tube and to be allowed to die. We only know those were her wishes because her husband and friends say so, and we have no reason not to believe them. He has been offered money to divorce his wife so she could be kept alive and he could marry his girl friend and raise their family. He refuses, and it’s hard to understand why except that he really believes he represents the wishes of his wife.

Standing against him are his in-laws, professed religious Catholics, although they begged for their daughter’s divorce. They contend their daughter would want to live because of her religious beliefs, which remarkably are exactly theirs, although she doesn’t seem to have exhibited many of them. Further, they think with care and therapy, she could recover. They hold up recent examples of alleged miracle recoveries as precedent. But none of those is comparable to the situation of their daughter’s, because she suffered far more damage.

The story is this: she suffered brain damage in 1990, six years into an apparently happy marriage. Her heart stopped briefly from a chemical imbalance believed to have been brought on by an eating disorder. Court-appointed doctors say she is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery.

The court appointed her husband legal guardian that year, and the parents did not object. Living together, the in-laws and husband tried to bring Terri home and agreed her needs were too much for them, and she went back into care. They took her to California for various treatments from their Florida home. Nothing helped. In the course of events, doctors are sued, and over a million dollars is collected, with three quarters of a million dollars going into a trust fund for the woman’s care. The husband and in-laws have a falling out over money. The husband says they wanted his separate portion of the money, about $300k, shared with them. They attempt to get him removed as guardian, but fail because the court finds the husband has been a good protector.

Eight years of this, and the husband requests that his wife be allowed to die, concurrent with her expressed wishes. Parents object, and suggest that he wants to inherit what remains of her estate. Later, they encourage the belief that he beat his wife and may have done the damage. No evidence. The trial agrees with the husband. In the seven years since, the numerous trials and petitions have all gone against the parents.

Then, recently, Tom DeLay, Majority Leader of the House, had legal trouble unabated. Suddenly, sanctity of marriage and other supposed Republican values, like unobtrusive government, is out the window as DeLay and the GOP make hypocritical fools of themselves posing as heroic defenders of life, and creating Federal legislation to save Terri Schiavo from herself. Words fail, as they often do around the carcass of ethics that is DeLay.

It’s equally hard for me to like the parents, the Schindlers. They distort and lie, from all accounts. They use the video they illegally took of their daughter that shows her seeming to smile and react to her mother, but those doctors who have seen the whole video say it’s a sham, and that they’ve never been able to duplicate it, and that Terri for most of the film holds the same expression glaring off into space and isn’t reacting to Mom at all. The audio portion of the video contains stage directions the parents apparently hoped could be edited out. They continually claim that their daughter makes eye contact and interacts with them. The doctors all deny it, except those like Senate Leader Dr. Bill Frist who has never seen the woman, and offered up a diagnosis he was never competent to make based upon the video clips he saw on television.

It’s always moving to me to see men my age like DeLay and Frist, henna-haired globs of unrisen dough, talking about sincere core belief and their spiritual depths as they pander for votes, throwing aside previously professed noble conservative values and platforms like chaff to confuse the radar.

If you believe that marriage is sacred, and that the spouse is the repository of the other’s wishes and can legally speak for them, as both conservative Christians and seculars claim, then what the hell are we doing involved in this personal, family case that has been consistent with court rulings every step of the way? We’re being canting hypocrites, is what.

By law, Terri Shiavo made her decision when she got married. What do we know now that she didn’t know then that would nullify vows given and received?