Death, dignity and Terri Schiavo

Whatever she wanted, it couldn't have been this.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 29, 2005 2:04PM (EST)

TV's soap-opera coverage of the Terri Schiavo case casts it as a blood feud between Schiavo's husband and her parents over what to do about her. But the legal question litigated over the better part of the last decade isn't what Michael Schiavo or the Schindlers want for Terri Schiavo. It's what Terri Schiavo wanted for herself.

The Florida courts have examined that question and answered it repeatedly. Here's how an appellate court explained it four years ago in affirming a determination made by a Florida trial court:

"In the final analysis, the difficult question that faced the trial court was whether Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo, not after a few weeks in a coma, but after ten years in a persistent vegetative state that has robbed her of most of her cerebrum and all but the most instinctive of neurological functions, with no hope of a medical cure but with sufficient money and strength of body to live indefinitely, would choose to continue the constant nursing care and the supporting tubes in hopes that a miracle would somehow recreate her missing brain tissue, or whether she would wish to permit a natural death process to take its course and for her family members and loved ones to be free to continue their lives. After due consideration, we conclude that the trial judge had clear and convincing evidence to answer this question as he did."

The way the trial judge answered it: Even "erring on the side of life," the clear and convincing evidence, including oral statements made by Schiavo in her youth, showed that Terri Schiavo would rather die than live the life she now endures.

We don't know Terri Schiavo, and we don't know what factors might have shaped her desire to die without having extraordinary measures keeping her alive. We do know ourselves, at least on good days, and we know that our own desire would be driven by a concern for dignity. If that's a part of what mattered to Terri Schiavo, she has lost her battle already. When you're a grown woman and 19 judges in Florida have considered the question of who changes your diapers, when protestors are carrying signs of aborted fetuses outside your hospice room, when the intimate details of your faith and your married life have become fodder for every pundit in the land, the dignity part of the equation is pretty much gone.

But for Terri Schiavo, no matter what happens next, it's only going to get worse. As the Miami Herald reports today, the intrusion into Schiavo's life will continue into her death. When Schiavo dies, her husband will ask the Pinellas County medical examiner to conduct a full autopsy. "He believes it's important for the public to know the full and massive damage to Mrs. Schiavo,'' attorney George Felos told the paper. Not to be outdone, an attorney for Schiavo's parents say they, too, want an autopsy in order to find the answers to "all the unanswered questions." For them, spokesman Randall Terry says, that means learning whether Schiavo ever had any broken bones, and thus whether there's evidence to support unsubstantiated allegations that she was abused before she suffered the heart attack that left her in her current state.

The end may be near for Terri Schiavo, but the indignities of her life will follow her into death.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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