Thursday, March 24, 2005

Terry Schiavo

It's kind of risky, commenting on the Terri Schaivo case, when so many people have such strong feelings about it. One can hardly say a word about it without offending someone, and I'm in my usual wishy-washy state, wishing their were some kind of moderate compromise -- but there isn't.
I'm actually rather uncomfortable with the idea of removing a feeding tube from a patient; it's not quite like "pulling the plug" i.e. where the only thing keeping heartbeat and respiration going is a machine. In those circumstances, I don't have a problem with it. What is being done here is more of a denial of care; any helpless person will die if care-givers don't feed her. Now, it's clear that there just isn't much of Terri left; most of her brain is gone. But the same can be said to be true, for example, of late-stage Alzheimer's patients, and a myriad of other conditions affecting the brain. At what point is a person no longer worth caring for? What criteria should be used? No matter which one you use, there are other conditions that one could make the same argument about.
Although in such an important legal issue, it shouldn't matter, I don't particularly like or sympathize with any of the principals in this case, except for Terri herself. As in many family fights, everybody has gotten ugly. The Schindlers seem quite determined to ignore the reality of their daughter's condition -- something that I have a hard time being patient with. The idea that Terri could somehow miraculously become conscious again when most of her brain has turned to fluid is just ridiculous. Maybe it's the way I grew up, in particular dealing with my mother's illness; there's something in my emotional makeup that really gets me irritated when people pretend that things are going to be o.k., when they just aren't. As I write, there is a friend of the family claiming that Terri responded with a scream when asked if she wanted to live. With 70-90% of her brain gone, it is doubtful she would have even understood what was said to her, much less responded to it. People in this state do make various involuntary sounds and movements, including screams -- which are unrelated to external stimuli. According to the medical experts, Terri's parents are just desperately reading some sort of consciousness into these random reactions.
I'm absolutely horrified by their argument that her afterlife is in peril if she is involuntarily deprived of nutrition. The Catholic stance, as I understand it, is that they are forbidden to commit suicide by refusing food and water. That the Schindlers would use this argument indicates that they are either religious extremists, or they are just grasping at straws. A person who cannot make decisions about their own life cannot sin.
Michael Schiavo is even less sympathetic. I have to wonder why he has continued with this, when in his personal life has clearly moved on. I don't really blame him for that, under the circumstances, but I have to be suspicious as to why removing the feeding tube is so important to him. In spite of various rumors, money does not appear to be a motivation. It could be the Catholic laws on divorce -- although it seems a bit crazy to worry about that, when he is openly living with another woman. For all intents and purposes, he might as well be remarried. I have trouble believing that he is just so devoted to her that he is willing to go through all these legal battles in order to have Terri's "wishes" (which seem to be based upon a few offhand comments on the issue) fulfilled. There are some indications that he may have been abusive; there are no conclusions on that, since the court decided that it was irrelevant in the current case. With some people, the fight itself becomes the issue, and I suspect that's what's going on here.
And, of course, conservatives are making major political hay out of this case. I ran into one blogger who commented that it's too bad that they aren't more concerned about feeding those who are conscious. Not to mention the fact they want to limit malpractice suits, like the one that has been paying for Terri's care all this time, or that they want to prevent families who are faced with such enormous medical bills from filing bankruptcy. Keeping people alive, who need total care, takes money -- and that money has to come from somewhere, whether its taxes, lawsuits, or a family spending itself into bankruptcy. Conservatives don't like any of those things.
Legally, the courts have spoken. None of them has found sufficient grounds to removed Michael Schaivo from guardianship -- and when the chips are down, it is a patient's legal guardian that makes decisions like this. And I don't think it should be otherwise.


Baquia said...

you're right that this is a very charged topic. You can hardly say a word about it without stepping on someone's toes.
But I'll say one thing it has taught me (carefully taking off my steel-toe industrial strength construction boots): WRITE A WILL!

And in the will, treat contingencies like entering into a vegetative state, being paralized, etc... Tell people exactly what you want and where you stand. It will make things much simpler for everyone else and you will have peace of mind that your wishes will be known and implemented.

Now if only Shoghi Effendi had followed this advice.


Karen said...

Hi Baquia,

You are, of course, right -- and a lot of people have been talking about that. Although, poor Terri was so young when this happened to her that it's hard to say that she should have planned ahead of time. How many 26 year olds think about the possibility of imminent death or incapacity, especially if they don't have children?

I spent some time yesterday on a volunteer project with two ladies in their 80s -- one Democrat, one Republican. But both believed that Terri should not be kept alive, and that the tube should be removed. I find that older people almost inevitably feel that way. By that time, they've seen loved ones go through the process of dying, and think "the quicker, the better".

The problem I have with writing a "living will" is that there are all sorts of contingencies. It would have been wrong to remove the feeding tube from Terri right away -- it took years for her brain to atrophy to the point there was no hope. Early on, she even received therapy.

Thinking about it, I found that I trust my husband to make the decision. I don't believe he would be overly quick to "pull the plug", nor do I think he would be so sentimental that he'd keep me alive when all hope is gone. But I will have to make some sort of arrangements when I get to a point in life when it would be my children who would make the decision -- just so they wouldn't argue between themselves, if for no other reason.

Marco Oliveira said...

Thanks for the post Karen. I finaly found something unbiased on this issue.
I guess the need to write a Will is the lesson we take from this sad story.
Baquia: what if we all stop complaining about baha'i administration? If only we all could be more positive... :-)

Karen said...

Dear Marco,

I just found your comment; for some reason it didn't come in my email (maybe the spam filter caught it).

Anyway, I appreciate the compliment. I've been involved in so many debates in Baha'i cyberspace that very few people I know out here call me "unbiased" about anything. But I actually do try very hard to be fair, even when I'm being critical.

And you're right; everyone should have a will. Even before I became a Baha'i, I attended a training seminar for non-profit groups, and the lady giving it had a mission about this, and slipped it into her presentation. She said "Even if all you own is a beat-up Volkswagon and a cat, you don't want the government to decide who gets them." Nor, I might add, do you want your family fighting over who gets them either.

I think that's really the important aspect of writing a will -- not just that you have your wishes carried out, but that you don't leave chaos behind you. I'm sure poor Terri, whatever she wanted concerning her treatment, would never have wanted her husband and parents at each other's throats this way. I find myself wondering if any of them have ever thought about that.