Tug of War with Terri Schiavo


Chicago, Illinois

All kinds of right-wing fanatics–anti-abortionists, “family values” blowhards, even neo-Nazi Bo Gritz–flocked to exploit the Terri Schiavo case. Their hypocrisy knew no bounds.

But in the days before Schiavo’s death last week, some of the biggest news was made by people who consider themselves progressives. Rev. Jesse Jackson flew to Florida to pray with Terri Schiavo’s parents, who wanted to keep their daughter attached to a feeding tube, and Ralph Nader wrote an article urging the courts to grant guardianship to the parents. Numerous advocates and activists for disabled rights showed up in the same ranks–many insisting that Michael Schiavo’s decision to have his wife’s feeding tube removed represented a wider threat of euthanasia against the disabled.

Sadly, their confusion of the medical facts of the Schiavo case and rhetoric about the “murder” of the disabled didn’t promote a left-wing understanding of the issue, but helped the right wing spread its lies and capture more ideological ground.

The most obvious example of the right’s advance is the emergency law passed by Congress and signed by George Bush, which paved the way for federal judges to intervene in the Schiavo case.

As it turned out, the federal courts–though packed by conservatives–didn’t step in. But the law sets a further precedent in giving powers to the government–whether elected lawmakers, appointed judges, or government agencies–to pry into people’s personal lives and decisions.

Progressives should be opposed to measures that give the government more powers to interfere with the personal choices of individual people. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the logic of “Terri’s law” is connected to, for example, further restrictions on young women who want an abortion. And lawmakers are considering more far-reaching legislation modeled on “Terri’s law”–with none other than liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) pushing for its consideration, at the urging, he says, of disability rights groups.
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ONE SYMPTOM of the confusion around the Schiavo case is that people who should know better accepted wholesale the right wing’s ideologically loaded characterization of Terri Schiavo’s condition as “disabled,” with the possibilities of a recovery unknown. “Since when do we believe the doctors?” asked one writer on the Common Dreams Web site. “I thought we leftists were skeptical, even scornful, of the authority of mainstream medicine.”

But this view is “scornful” of basic science. Every court-appointed doctor who examined Schiavo agreed that she was in a persistent vegetative state–also known, more bluntly, as “cortical death”–the result of a massive heart attack in 1990 that deprived her brain of oxygen.

The heavily edited videotapes showing Schiavo seeming to recognize people around her were deceptive. Such movements were reflexes governed by the brain stem, and not a sign of activity in the more advanced cerebral cortex.

Also deceptive were the moving anecdotes of disabled advocates about severely disabled individuals who suddenly and unexpectedly showed a dramatic improvement in their condition. Such stories have nothing to do with Terri Schiavo, though–essential parts of whose brain were known by doctors to have liquefied, making such a transformation impossible.

Another point common to the strange bedfellows in this case was the slander campaign against husband Michael Schiavo, who was basically accused of looking for an excuse to bump off his wife so he could keep her money.

In fact, after his wife’s heart attack, Michael Schiavo went to great lengths to get help for her. “When doctors determined that Terri had entered a persistent vegetative state, Michael flew Terri to California for experimental surgical treatments, sleeping on a cot in her hospital room,” reported ABC News. “Even after doctors in California determined surgery would do nothing to help Terri, Michael continued to seek help. He admitted Terri to a Florida brain-injury center and hired an aide to take her out to parks and museums, in the hope it might stimulate her reawakening. It didn’t.”

Only years later did Michael Schiavo change his mind and decide to honor what he–along with other witnesses–says was Terri Schiavo’s request not to be kept alive in a vegetative state.

“I wish Michael had divorced Terri and let Terri’s parents take over,” wrote disabled rights activist Josie Byzek in one of the better commentaries on the controversy. But as Michael Schiavo told CNN interviewer Larry King, “This is Terri’s wish, this is Terri’s choice. And I’m going to follow that wish if it’s the last thing I can do for Terri.”

Another line of argument, which is given a feminist sheen, insists that the real issue should be Terri Schiavo’s eating disorder, the likely cause of her heart attack in 1990. Once again, Michael Schiavo comes off the villain, criticized either for not recognizing his wife’s illness, or for actually being its cause.

Is this really how progressives should understand the epidemic of eating disorders among young women? Should we blame the fathers and husbands of the estimated 4 percent of women in the U.S. who will suffer from bulimia in their lifetime? How about the mothers–should they share the blame?

Eating disorders deserve to be taken seriously as a terrible consequence of oppression in a society that treats people as things and objects, rather than as fully human. But the subject isn’t being taken seriously when it comes up in this way in the Schiavo case.


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AS WAS typical of the entire controversy, another separate, though related, issue got mangled into the debate–the question of assisted suicide, which has been legal in Oregon since 1997. Once again, many disabled rights activists responded with heated rhetoric about the threat this represented.

Given the terrible history of the treatment of the disabled in this country, there is perhaps some reason for these fears. But the record in Oregon should calm them. Studies have found no evidence of the poor, elderly or depressed being coerced into suicide. On the contrary, those who have opted to die tend to be well educated and well insured, and requests for help in dying have often led to patients getting better treatment for pain and other ameliorative care.

Why did so many advocates of disability rights ally themselves with right wingers who they disagree with on many other issues? Some commentators claim that the left is to blame, for shunning the disability rights movement. “Progressives should be better allies to them,” wrote liberal blogger Zeynep Toufe. “The current alignment means that many in the disability rights community are forced to work with an outrageously hypocritical right-wing political machine.”

Is there any evidence that this is true? The left has a proud record of standing up against injustices, including those suffered by the disabled. To take just one of many examples, in the mid-1990s, it was Newt Gingrich and the “Republican revolutionaries” who, with their Contract on America, set out to gut programs like Supplemental Security Income, which funds desperately needed aid for the severely disabled. It was progressives who made up the too-small ranks of those who protested.

Currently, the Bush administration has proposed a budget with the sharpest cuts to programs for the poor and workers in a quarter century–since the early days of Reaganism. The assault on the Medicare and Medicaid health systems–which provide the bare means of survival for many people–is a disaster for the disabled. This is the real threat to their lives.


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THE EMOTIONAL response of those connected to the disability rights issue is understandable. The lack of care and resources for the disabled is a cruel fact of life in capitalist society.

The less severely disabled face big hurdles to live anything approaching a decent life and endure many misunderstandings in a society that is often miseducated about them. For the more severely disabled, family members and friends who bear the burden of caring for them go through outrageous hardships just to assert the basic right of their loved ones to survive.

But whether out of emotion or some other motivation, many disabled rights advocates have reacted to the Schiavo case and the related question of assisted suicide in a one-sided way.

All those who care about justice must support the demands of the disabled to gain respect and access to greater resources. But the other side of the question is the just claim of individuals who are terminally ill–or the loved ones of people being kept alive, with no hope of recovery–to make decisions about whether and how those lives should end.

There are issues involved in a decision about assisted suicide–including the fear of becoming an overwhelming financial and emotional burden on families–that would be handled quite differently in a more humane society. But in the circumstances of today’s world, there are no simple answers. Progressives shouldn’t be in the business of intruding on the painful, personal decisions that have to be made in such circumstances–much less giving aid and comfort to right wingers who want to impose their ideology on the rest of us.

“Before we take on the right to die too enthusiastically, let’s make sure everyone has an equal right to live,” wrote Naomi Jaffe on Common Dreams. This is a reasonable point. But why must the two things be seen as opposed? The answer is to organize for better health care, not to oppose assisted suicide or line up with right wingers in cases like Terri Schiavo’s.

Every person deserves the right to quality health care and the right to make the most personal of choices–even the right to die–without the interference of any third party, including the government.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net








ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net