Laura Hershey's Whenever Web Column

Column from October 21, 2003

A Reprieve -- and More Questions -- for Terri Schiavo

Copyright 2003 by Laura Hershey

A life hangs in the balance this week, maybe today. As I began writing this column, I watched a live Internet broadcast of the Florida State Senate's debate of the life of Terri Schiavo.

Watching, it occurred to me that this is a rare thing indeed -- for a person to have her very life debated by a legislative body. Those who believe in an afterlife might envision a heavenly tribunal having such a debate while deciding a soul's eternal fate, based on the merits of the life lived.

In this case, though, the debate is on earth and its subject is still alive -- I hope. Every time a new email arrives in my in-basket, I nervously check to see whether it announces Terri Schiavo's death. She has gone without food or water since last Wednesday, October 15, when her feeding tube was removed at the behest of her husband. Michael Schiavo has for many years wanted his wife to be denied basic nutrition, in order to end her life. He claims she is comatose, and several doctors and courts have gone along with him, granting him the authority to carry out his wishes. This despite the facts that Terri Schiavo left no written statement refusing health care, that her parents believe she wants to live, and that she can be observed looking around, vocalizing, responding to her environment and to visitors. (See video clips at http://www.terrisfight.org/downloads/index.html .)

The debate lasted about two hours. In the end, the Florida Legislature authorized Governor Jeb Bush to intervene and have Terri's feeding tube reinserted. I'm surprised at the positive outcome, after hearing some of the arguments put forward during the Senate debate. Several insisted that the courts know best. Other legislators felt that the bill was "anti-family" because it challenged the power of a husband to determine his wife's destiny. Most of the bill's opponents focused mainly on Terri Schiavo's cognitive impairments. Several preceded their comments with various versions of "I wouldn't want to live like that."

Those were the most telling remarks. For all the "right-to-die" versus "right-to-life" rhetoric, the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo was really about disability. When I look at the videos of Terri, I see a woman who has attachments and experiences a range of emotions, but who has to move and express herself differently from other people, because her impairments prevent her from doing things in the usual way. Others, however, see Terri as a "vegetable." That's at least partly because people have a hard time accepting the radical differences disability can make.

For now, it seems, Terri Schiavo has been given a reprieve. But troubling questions remain: If she survives the effects of six days of dehydration and starvation, what will happen to Terri Schiavo now? Will she be moved from the hospice where, as an overall healthy person with no terminal illness, she clearly does not belong? Will she finally begin getting speech therapy and physical therapy? Will the media stop calling Terri Schiavo "comatose"? Will guardianship be transferred to someone with less of a conflict of interest, who can devote their energies to Terri's best interests?

The disability-rights movement cannot relax yet, until Terri Schiavo's rights as a disabled woman are assured.

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