FOCUS: Terri Schiavo: Guilty of Nothing But Life

In February 1990, Terri Schiavo collapsed from an apparent heart attack that resulted in severe brain damage, leaving her in a state of incapacity. For the subsequent fifteen years, Schiavo’s husband and sole legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, has been fighting to obstruct her road to recovery. In 1993, when doctors believed that Terri Schiavo’s condition was improving, Michael Schiavo began to impede her treatment, going as far as inserting a “Do Not Resuscitate” order in her medical files and ordering medical staff to deny her antibiotics for a developing and potentially fatal infection. He admitted in a deposition that he intended for her to die from the infection. Furthermore, he has refused her treatment in appropriate medical facilities. While Terri Schiavo has lain suffering in a hospital bed, Michael Schiavo has carried on with his life, living with a woman with whom he has several children. He refuses to divorce Terri, which would force him to surrender his legal authority over her. Ironically, the money he has used to pay his lawyers, including renowned “right-to-die” advocate George Felos, is from the million-dollar settlement awarded in 1992 to pay for Terri Schiavo’s medical care. In effect, the money earmarked to save her life is the very money being used to kill her.

Michael Schiavo’s efforts have led to the removal last Friday of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, the only means by which she receives nourishment. Terri Schiavo’s case had not been hopeless; although she appears to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), at least fourteen medical specialists, including Dr. William P. Chesire, a neurologist from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, and renowned neurologist Dr. William Hammesfahr, have suggested that she is definitely not. Even a doctor appointed by Michael Schiavo to investigate his wife’s health has admitted his surprise at her awareness level. She responds to stimuli and can breathe on her own, pump her own blood, and even swallow. Perhaps her PVS diagnosis on the part of other doctors has been the consequence of a lack of any better condition of which to describe her. Either way, there are serious doubts as to whether Terri Schiavo is truly in a PVS, and pulling the plug on her “life support system” is equivalent to slow starvation and dehydration, which is an extremely excruciating practice usually considered to be unethical. Florida statute 744.3215 (1) (i) states, “A person who has been determined to be incapacitated retains the right to receive necessary services and rehabilitation.” The courts have allowed her husband to take away that right without a living will.

Undoubtedly, an underlying issue in this case is the right to life: When does a person have the right to decide whether someone else’s life is worth living? The implications of saying that Schiavo is merely a vegetable are monumental for people with mental and/or physical disabilities. Do their legal guardians have the authority to terminate their lives just because they don’t function “normally” in society? People retain their human dignity regardless of their capacity to function. Schiavo’s case has the potential to set a discriminatory precedent for similar cases.

This case is not just about euthanasia or legalized murder, however. It also centers on why Michael Schiavo refuses to transfer care to Terri Schiavo’s family. Terri’s parents are desperately trying to provide her with the medical and personal attention she needs and deserves, but that her husband and the courts have denied. Michael Schiavo called for her death long before any doctor suggested she could be in a PVS, yet her parents have demonstrated that they only want a safe home and rehabilitation therapy for their daughter. Terri Schiavo stands to benefit from therapy that would help her to relearn to swallow and to speak, but thanks to the efforts of her husband, she does not have access to this therapy. If she had access to this therapy, perhaps she would be swallowing and speaking today on her own. Why Michael Schiavo will not relinquish his rights as Terri Schiavo’s legal guardian and allow her desperate family to care for their beloved is beyond our understanding. Given his behavior over the past decade, his assertion that this is what his wife wanted is questionable.

After garnering national media attention, this case has gone through the Florida court system, the Florida legislature, and this week, even the United States Congress. President George W. Bush himself woke up in the early hours of Monday morning to sign a bill passed by Congress, which forced the case into the federal court system and allowed Schiavo’s parents to appeal to a federal judge, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the federal court system has thus far failed to order the reinsertion of Schiavo’s feeding tube, and so Schiavo very well may die while her case is stuck in the appeals process. For an inmate on death row, due process allows for a court review that looks at old and new facts to ensure that an innocent person is not executed. Executions are routinely delayed as a result of the extensive appeals process. Terri Schiavo deserves at least as many rights as a person convicted of capital murder.

We applaud the actions of lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington for doing all they can to preserve life. We urge the Harvard community to join the fight for Schiavo’s life. For more information about Schiavo, and what we can do to help save her life, please visit http://www.terrisfight.org.

Meghan E. Grizzle ’07 is a linguistics concentrator in Leverett House. Ryan M. McCaffrey ’07 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Quincy House. Helen V. Renton ’08 lives in Canaday Hall.