Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Schiavo, belated

It's rather belated, but I wanted to post a commentary piece I wrote about Terri Schiavo after visiting her hospice the day before her death.

Here goes:

In their coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, the media have wasted an opportunity to explore complicated emotional, legal and ethical issues with the American public. Instead, they have insisted on continually framing the issues as an “Us-versus-Them” fight between Schiavo’s husband and parents, with the American public standing behind one or the other.
Indeed, if the American public is divided so neatly, it is certainly due to the media’s over-simplification of the complicated issues at hand. Americans would have benefited from an open-ended discussion of the complexities involved, instead of the continual two-sided rhetoric evident in headlines such as “Autopsy issues just part of a day of sparring.” The same St. Petersburg Times article used frequent ‘war analogies’ such as “the public relations battle” and “the sparring continued.”
To begin with, the media neglected an opportunity to discuss the devastating consequences of bulimia, the eating disorder which is thought to have led to the stoppage of Schiavo’s heart and her subsequent brain damage. Schiavo’s husband, Michael, successfully sued her physician for failing to detect a potassium deficiency, a symptom of her disease. Why wasn’t our body-image-conscious community able to recognize and prevent the initial tragedy? Terri Schiavo was a married adult, not a high school teenager. The media missed an opportunity to raise awareness about the serious consequences of bulimia and the wide range of individuals it affects.
A March 27 Associated Press article summing up the day’s news mentioned that Schiavo’s heart was thought to have stopped due to a chemical imbalance, but failed to mention that an eating disorder caused the imbalance.
Another important issue at stake is the classification of an feeding tube as an “extraordinary” measure, equivalent to a respirator. Is providing nourishment equivalent to helping an individual to breathe? Supporters of Schiavo’s parents would say no: providing “food and water” is a basic right. But it is important to remember that a feeding tube is inserted into the stomach; it is not as if Schiavo were capable of eating an apple and drinking a Coke.
The classification is important in the framing of the legal battle: if Schiavo said “no tubes for me” as her husband claims, did she consider nourishment a natural right or just another tube that she did not want? Indeed, this classification affects many living wills, which are generally framed in terms of extraordinary measures. The term “extraordinary measures,” it seems, is not universally agreed upon: Do living wills need to be more specific, or can you count on your legal guardian to represent your views accurately?
Is it appropriate to consider opinions other than those of an individual’s legal guardian, as was done in the appeal cases of Schiavo’s parents? Perhaps it is important to hear all sides of a story, from everyone who knows the life at stake. But that is not how our legal system is currently set up. Under our current laws, Schiavo would have had no reason to doubt that her spouse would carry out decisions as he saw fit. Individuals do have the choice of appointing another individual as their guardian in medical decisions.
And last but certainly not least, what about the fact that the U.S. Congress overrode the authority of the courts in the case of one particular individual? Are we to assume that special people get to have special laws? What happened to the part in our constitution where all people are created equal? Then again, maybe unique circumstances deserve to be considered separately—who am I to say?
The Associated Press article discussed a federal circuit court ruling without mentioning that this was made possible only due to the law passed by the U.S. Congress moving the case into their jurisdiction.
This is just a sampling of issues that deserved to be discussed in the context of Schiavo’s life, and now in the context of her death. This is not to say that all journalists neglected these issues; just that when they were mentioned, they tended to be submerged far below the narrative of a legal battle and a fight for life or death.
The Associated Press article failed to discuss any issue highlighted here, mentioning only the argument over Schiavo’s consciousness. This article, like a March 28 New York Times article, continually framed the issues in the same over-simplified rhetoric used by the families, lawyers and protesters. The same New York Times article used a plethora of phrases like “part of an increasingly emotional war,” and addressed only the degree of consciousness according to experts and family, once again failing to mention a single issue discussed here.
I would like to believe that Americans have the capacity to discuss complex issues that might make everyone a little uncomfortable. I would like to believe that Americans can discuss issues without needing it to be framed in a two-sided war that makes for easy side-choosing. I just wish we’d been given the chance.

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