Terri Schiavo: a disability rights case?
Widespread misinformation, coupled with massive media coverage, leads to trouble. There are many misconceptions regarding Terri Schiavo, and I fell prey to many of them. What finally changed my opinion was the discovery that she could not feel pain due to the fact that her cerebral cortex had been replaced with cerebrospinal fluid. This is where my opinion of whether this was a disability rights case changed.
If Terri Schiavo was merely disabled, this would be a different case. But she's not disabled. To reply to one group of protestors, she's "Not Dead Yet", but only if you define death as the cessation of breathing. Everything that made Terri Schiavo who she was is gone. Saying that this is the fight for the rights of a disabled woman is an insult to the people whose actual disability claims have gone unrecognized. Why don't the protestors focus on the people who can feel? As much as I used to worry that the case of Terri Schiavo might be a dangerous precedent in the removal of disabled people's rights, I think that the real threat is now coming from people who want to undermine the legal system so that her feeding tube can be reinserted. If any group of people can change the law on a single argument, then everyone is threatened.
When I was ten years old, my grandfather fell down a concrete staircase, cracked his head open, and spent the next three-and-a-half years in a coma before he died. He was the classic hopeless case - his eyes didn't even react to light. At a certain point, my mother signed a 'do not resuscitate' order, directing that if he contracted pneumonia for the umpteenth time and his heart stopped, the doctors wouldn't take any measures to save him. This did not make us "murderers"; it simply meant that we were able to recognise a point of no return. As difficult as it may sound, Terri's parents need to do likewise. A few months ago, when my grandfather's son - my uncle - found out that he had terminal cancer and that it had already spread throughout much of his body, he was able to make an informed decision, based on his own experience, on what should be done if he was too incapacitated to make decisions about his own care. In February this year, he died with as much dignity we could give him. Unfortunately, Terri's case has not been so easily resolved. If any of the protestors care about her at all, they will let her go.
Terri Schiavo's face has been plastered across all manner of news media. Undoubtedly she'll become one of the most clichéd and overused images of 2005. I can't attest as to whether Terri Schiavo would have wanted to be kept alive for the past fifteen years, but I think I can say with relative certainty that she wouldn't have wanted her last days to be exploited. I understand that her parents must be going through unfathomable grief, but they are not doing their daughter a favour by turning her into a pawn for various political organisations. To let her preserve her dignity, tell the protestors to go home so that Terri can be shown as a human being and not as a martyr.
I hope that by the time you read this article, the only thing left to say on the subject of Terri Schiavo will be "rest in peace".
More articles about
Live community panel
Listen to our regular razor sharp talk show online, or subscribe to it as a podcast. Spread the word: it's where disability and reality almost collide.