The Terri Schiavo test

In a new essay, Joan Didion argues that politicians on both sides of the aisle missed the point of the Schiavo controversy.

Published May 27, 2005 9:19PM (EDT)

Theresa Marie Schiavo is not a name many of us would like to think about again. Two months after her death, the national spasm of disgust, grief, outrage, and sympathy sparked by the question of whether or not the brain-injured Florida woman should live or die feels like a long-ago bad dream.

Joan Didion, though, has stepped back in to make some sense of the nightmare. In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books the essayist digs deep into the facts surrounding the Schiavo case -- facts she says were elided in the national discussion of "Terri"'s fate -- and concludes that we, all of us, from the politicians to the media to the watercooler-gatherers chatting about this poor woman, failed to confront the real dilemmas posed by Schiavo's situation.

It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that Didion stands on Schiavo's parents' side -- and, by association, the Christian right's -- in the debate. Didion's position is too serious, and too nuanced, to be so precisely, and disparagingly, pinned down. But for we liberals who put enough stock in various courts' pronouncements concerning Terri's state to feel comfortable with her hastened death, Didion's essay is quite devastating. She points out, among other things, that nobody is quite sure what caused the cardiac arrest that led to Terri's brain injury (the suggestion of an "eating disorder," Didion notes, "appears to have been entirely assumptive, based on no evidence beyond the unexceptional facts that she had ... gained weight, gone on a diet, and lost the weight.") Didion raises the specter of spousal abuse, noting that a 1991 bone scan of Terri's body found, in the words of one doctor, patterns "fairly typical of multiple traumatic injuries of relatively recent origin."

And Didion is quite skeptical of the line, offered by so many on the left, that it was Terri's wish never to be kept alive for long in her debilitated condition. "Only in 1997, seven years after the cardiac arrest and a year before he first requested that the feeding tube be removed, did Michael Schiavo first mention these recalled wishes," Didion points out of Terri's husband. She digs up a 1992 interview with Michael in which he describes his plans to care for his wife for as long as she is ill. "I believe in the vows I took with my wife," Michael Schiavo said then, "through sickness, in health, for richer or poor. I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I'm going to do that. "

Didion's point is not that the left got the Schiavo case wrong. It's that the left and the right erred in seeing the case in cold political terms (notwithstanding the fact that politicians, by entering the debate, made it a matter of politics). The Schiavo case "had at its core a virtually unthinkable but increasingly urgent question, one that few on either side of the debate wanted to address aloud," Didion writes. "The question had ultimately to do with whether or not there could be occasions when the broad economic and ethical interests of the society at large should outweigh any individual claim to either the most advanced medical attention ... or indefinite care. This was the question no one on any side of the debate wanted to hear. This was the question conveniently muffled by talk about 'right-to-die' and 'murderers' and 'mullahs,' about the 'freak show,' the 'circus.'"

Terri Schiavo's condition was a test of our society's moral mettle, Didion says. We failed it.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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