Schiavo outcry speaks volumes about us
08:43 PM CST on Wednesday, March 23, 2005
No commentator, columnist or talk show host in the land has had to cast topical chum upon the waters this week. The outpouring of opinion in the accelerating drama of Terri Schiavo's right-to-live-or-die case has drowned out pretty much everything else.
There's an emotional exhaustion setting in about this case, as if people are bone-tired of hearing about it, but can't quite bring themselves to stop paying attention until the final legal step is exhausted.
This is not a bad thing, for two reasons: First, as many have pointed out, Mrs. Schiavo's wrenching and infinitely publicized case is lighting a fire under millions of people to prepare physician's directives, or "living wills," so there will never be any questions about medical maintenance should they become severely incapacitated.
And second, it suggests that our culture is not, after all, as shallow and frivolous as some critics make us out to be. Millions of Americans have torn themselves away from celebrity gossip and game shows in the last few days to consider the complex issues of medicine, law, bioethics and mortality that this case poses.
Since writing about Mrs. Schiavo's case in Tuesday's paper, I have received a deluge of mail, much of it emotionally affecting, some of it insulting, all of it compelling.
In a brief capsule, I wrote that elected officials had no business interfering in this case; that due legal process has been exhaustively afforded; that Mrs. Schiavo should be allowed a dignified death in accordance with the wishes of her legal guardian, her husband.
I also characterized some of those campaigning for the re-attachment of Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube as non-medical "amateurs" and "meddlers" – words to which some correspondents took strong offense.
"Exactly what do you mean by 'amateurs'?" one irate reader asked. "Most of your columns are light reading and you should stick to what you know."
But my mail ran, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, in favor of allowing Mrs. Schiavo to die without further intervention from politicians.
Interestingly, many of the writers who expressed this view felt that their sentiments have been largely ignored by a media they see as too preoccupied by protesters and activists.
"I thought I must be about the only person in the country who was appalled by the outside meddling in a private and personal family tragedy," said one writer.
"I am just fed up with the politicians and the strangers who intrude in this private matter," said another.
I heard from health-care professionals who said powerful emotion in this case has obscured medical and biological reality.
"There truly are things worse than death," wrote one doctor whose patients include terminally ill AIDS sufferers. "I have seen them."
"I have seen this scenario play itself out many times in my career," wrote a registered nurse. "This is a tragic case of irrational, selfish emotion overshadowing evidence-based medical practice and what the patient would have wanted."
But many of those who took me to task expressed deeply held beliefs not only about the inherent value of life but also about parental love:
"Why don't you come up with a scenario where one of your children is in the same situation?" asked a reader in Richardson. "I would believe that you would like to have your child at home, without amateur and medical meddling, and feed him, and keep him alive to love him 24 hours a day."
Readers' responses also suggested that it's an inaccurate oversimplification to try to align this debate along political lines.
"I am a native Texan and a lifelong Republican; however, I am embarrassed," said one writer – who was echoed by quite a few others.
"I'm embarrassed with the actions of several people I helped get elected," said another reader, who was generous enough to point out that this is a rare occasion on which she and I agree.
Another writer, though, who described himself as a liberal Democrat, said he cannot reconcile himself to the notion of withholding food and water from a disabled patient.
"How can you stand by while somebody starves to death?" he asked. "I can't believe this is 'medicine.'"
Most affecting, though, were messages from families who have faced the agony of end-of-life decisions themselves:
"It hits home," said a writer related to a severely incapacitated Alzheimer's patient who recently died of pneumonia.
"Luckily, she had signed a 'no feeding tube, no heroics' form so we were able to proceed with her wishes," this writer said. "But what if someone had contested this? Our family could have ended up in the media circus, just like the folks in the Schiavo case. The thought of this gives me cold chills."
And a lot of people, regardless of political affiliation, seem concerned about the possible legal precedent established with the congressional intervention in this case.
"What must I do to keep the government out of my deathbed?" one writer asked. "How can I be assured ... I am granted a right to die? Is it still my choice?"
A good question. I heard a lot of good questions, to which there are no easy answers. These are painful issues involving deeply held beliefs to which there are no simple or universally acceptable answers.
At least we're talking about them.