The war on Michael Schiavo and the war over life
By Nicholas Stix
Do you hate Michael Schiavo?
As Terri Schiavo's life slowly exhausts itself, I ask you to consider that many of the people who have claimed to care so much about Mrs. Schiavo are motivated less by concern for her, than by their hatred for her husband, Michael.
For clarity's sake, let me make two statements and quote two adages.
1. I do not support removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, but I also do not condemn Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael, for his decision to have her feeding tube removed; 2 . I do not find Michael Schiavo at all likeable, but his likeability is irrelevant; 3. "Hard cases make for bad law"; and 4. "The law is a blunt instrument."
On a thread at the Free Republic message board discussing a particularly libelous rant against Mr. Schiavo, the psychotic rantings of the FReepers dominating the thread elicited a rational response from FReeper HMFIC:
"No doubt. I'd HATE to have some of these people on a jury trying me for something.
If you don't believe me, just read a few of the countless anti-Michael "articles" and message board posts. If you do, you will learn such "facts" as:
‘Greed': If Michael Schiavo were greedy, he would have found a way to do away with his wife ten years ago, just after he received $1 million from a malpractice suit against her former doctors. But he didn't. He put the money into a trust for her, where it has been virtually exhausted – perhaps $50,000 remains. Schiavists complain that Mr. Schiavo has spent upwards of $400,000 from the trust for legal representation, while ignoring the fact that he was defending himself in court against legal challenges from Mrs. Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. The Schiavists seem to be angered over Mr. Schiavo's ability to afford legal representation.
Granted, in 1998 the first guardian ad litem for Terri Schiavo, Richard L. Pearse Jr. did say that Mr. Schiavo's attitude towards prolonging his wife's life seemed to change when he came into a $1 million malpractice judgment against her former doctors. However, on Nightline last week, the second guardian ad litem, Jay Wolfson, said that doctors had told Mr. Schiavo from the beginning that his wife's condition was hopeless, and that after five years of caring for her, he seemed finally to accept what they had been saying all along. Note that unlike just about everyone else who has weighed in on the case, Wolfson, a lawyer and professor specializing in health law, has not aligned himself either with Mr. Schiavo or his in-laws, Bob and Mary Schindler, and appears to have no ax to grind.
Note that this "devil," Mr. Schiavo, had spent over 5000 hours caring for his wife in the nursing home during those first five years alone. And he has never deserted his wife, whom he still visits regularly and whose care he has never stopped supervising. Indeed, Mr. Schiavo is just the sort of impossible, demanding family member whom nursing staffs dread. But such facts are wasted on the Schiavists and the Schindlers.
Wolfson emphasized that Mr. Schiavo has demanded and gotten an extraordinarily high level of care for his wife, and during the first five years had even trained as a nurse, in order to assist in her care. Wolfson said that Mrs. Schiavo had suffered no decubitus ulcers (aka bed sores), which patients in such a condition typically suffer.
A patient who has no control over her body must be turned in bed or otherwise moved every two hours. Otherwise, her skin will break down and disintegrate, which can lead to death. That's a lot of work, in addition to changing diapers, and when necessary, bed linens, for a nurse aide who might have 15-20 other patients to care for. I once assisted a nurse in changing the dressing on a patient with a stage four decubitus ulcer. The tissue and bone were fully exposed. It was as if her body were slowly decomposing, while she was still alive.
My wife, who is a veteran nursing home nurse, informs me that when patients leave to be temporarily treated in hospitals, they usually return with stage one decubitus ulcers, because the quality of hospital care for such patients is typically negligent.
Aside from calling Mr. Schiavo a murderer, the Schiavists' other favorite condemnation of him, is that he is an "adulterer." He is cheating on a woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state since 1990.
We are not talking about a 70-year-old man here, but of a man who was about 30 years of age, when his wife became, for all intents and purposes, brain dead. Those who would condemn to a life of celibacy a vital young man, who has never neglected his stricken wife, are ghouls.
If the Schiavists are bucking for sainthood, that is their prerogative, though their behavior has been anything but saintly. But one may not demand saintliness of others.
If I were in Mr. Schiavo's shoes, I doubt I would disconnect my wife's feeding tube, but I hope that I would not give up on having a life. That Mr. Schiavo has a longtime girlfriend, with whom he has fathered two children, is but one of the countless particulars for which the Schiavists feel justified in hating him.
‘Michael wants to shut Terri up.' Terri is not talking, and never will, feeding tube or no feeding tube. Her cerebral cortex liquefied years ago, for crying out loud. And what is Mr. Schiavo seeking to silence his wife about? According to many Schiavists, he beat and strangled her, causing her brain damage.
Nonsense. Mrs. Schiavo suffered a heart attack, due to her having gone on an iced tea diet, and suffering a potassium imbalance. The brain damage followed from a lack of oxygen during the heart attack.
Many of the "strangulation"/"Michael wants to shut Terri up" stories seem to have originated with the Schindlers themselves. The Schiavists have portrayed Mrs. Schiavo's parents as angels locked in mortal combat with her demonic husband. The truth is, the Schindlers are no angels. Their hatred of their son-in-law runs so deep, that they have for several years engaged in a ruthless campaign of defamation against him. Indeed, the campaign of the Schiavists mirrors that of the Schindlers. Perhaps I should call the Schiavists "Schindlerists."
‘Michael has withheld care which would help Terri recover.' No such care exists for someone in Mrs. Schiavo's condition. Only divine intervention could have helped her.
‘Michael fits the "profile" of an O.J. Simpson or Scott Peterson.' The psychiatrist who has made such assertions, "Dr. Carole Lieberman, M.D.," promotes herself in her press releases as "a Board Certified Psychiatrist on the Clinical Faculty of UCLA" (yup – she puts out press releases, which are distributed by a PR firm, in effect advertising her lack of professional integrity).
"Having interviewed Terri's father on her radio show (‘Dr. Carole's Couch' on voiceamerica.com), Dr. Lieberman uncovered the fact that Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, fits the profile of a wife-abuser – the same profile that fit O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson."
The source of the above claim is none other than Dr. Lieberman, who enjoys discussing herself in the third person.
Profiles aren't facts, they're theories. And note that the good doctor based her "fact" solely on a radio interview with a man who hates Mr. Schiavo's guts, and thus is not a credible source. But Dr. Lieberman fails to or refuses to distinguish between ascertained facts and defamatory gossip.
Lieberman, who comes straight out of the Sigmund Fraud school of psychiatry, ought to lose her medical license, though she probably won't. Such talk is voodoo psychiatry and defamatory, and has no legal standing. If you have real evidence of a crime, like, say, a couple of butchered corpses, then you may or may not be able to say that the crime fits a certain "profile." But Lieberman is talking about a "profile," in order to conjure up a "crime" which apparently never occurred. It's the sort of stratagem that unscrupulous divorce lawyers pull on behalf of wives with distressing frequency, when they fabricate awful crimes which they charge the husband with having committed, e.g., having sexually molested his own children. And the fight between Mr. Schiavo and the Schindlers has all the markings of an ugly divorce.
Lieberman has repeated the most off-the-wall charges against Mr. Schiavo: "Even offers of $1 million were not enough for Michael to take the risk of Terri being around 'to talk'."
Just imagine what Lieberman and the other Schiavists would now be saying about Mr. Schiavo, had he accepted such blood money.
Dr. Lieberman has written me to complain, " you have misrepresented me in your column." " It is hypocritical for you to criticize me for making false statements and so on, when your column contains several misrepresentations about me. Had you bothered to contact me before you wrote your vitriolic piece, I could have clarified these points for you and backed them up. My opinions are based upon several hours of speaking with the family and many hours of review of documents- including medical documents, declarations, and so on.
Dr. Lieberman is blowing smoke; my representations of her are all based on her own posted statements.
Let's now consider the legal issues. As liberal Harvard University constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe observed last Monday on the Lehrer Report, in a brilliant stalemate of a debate with Jay Alan Sekulow of the religious conservative American Center for Law and Justice, there are hundreds of cases in America identical to the Schiavo case, but without Congress getting involved, and seeking to violate the principles of our legal system (such as crafting a law intended to apply to only one person, or seeking to usurp the judicial branch).
‘Michael and everyone supporting him are crooks.' The Schiavists have attacked Mr. Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, and even the Florida state judge who heard the case, Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer.
Meanwhile, the Schiavists speak approvingly of the Schindlers' attorneys, David Gibbs III and Barbara Weller. The Schiavists claim that Felos and Greer lack objectivity, but they don't want anyone to be objective, they want everyone to be against Mr. Schiavo. Likewise, the Schiavists insist that Mrs. Schiavo's civil rights have been violated, but to my knowledge, the courts have given more consideration to Mrs. Schiavo's civil rights than to anyone else in the history of American jurisprudence. As Jill Barton of the Associated Press reported, Mr. Schiavo's attorney, George Felos remarked, "The real grievance is not they [the Schindlers] did not have a day in court, that they did not have due process," Felos said. "The real grievance is they disagree with the result."
Had the courts, after having heard the case so many times before, suddenly ruled that Mrs. Schiavo had been denied due process, it would have set a terrible precedent. A lawyer would be able to equate losing a court case with his client being denied his rights to due process. Hence, every time a lawyer lost a case, he could turn the very defeat into an argument on behalf of his case at his next refiling.
In a similar act of sophistry, the Schindlers' attorneys argued that, as reported by the AP's Hope Yen, "Congress intended for Schiavo's tube to be reinserted, at least temporarily, when it passed an extraordinary bill last weekend that gave federal courts authority to fully review her case."
The Schindlers' attorneys claimed, as well, that Mrs. Schiavo's religious rights had been violated.
The civil rights-type arguments are wrongheaded enough to devote a book to straightening them out, but let's deal with just two issues.
The claim that the civil rights of death row inmates are better protected than Mrs. Schiavo's, in addition to denying reality, nonsensically treats criminal and civil cases as if they were identical. It further presumes that Mrs. Schiavo's interests are not being represented in court. Even the highly intelligent John O'Sullivan is not only promoting this nonsense, but playing the "Nazi card," as well.
But of course Mrs. Schiavo's civil rights are being represented – by her husband. The civil rights arguments must presuppose that Mr. Schiavo does not have the legal role that he in fact has, or that he has failed to properly protect his wife's rights. But in either case, the reasoning is circular – the Schindlers' attorneys and the Schiavists are presupposing that which they must prove. Ultimately, their belief reduces to ‘Mr. Schiavo refuses to do our bidding, ergo he is violating his wife's civil rights.' The belief takes the violation of Mr. Schiavo's rights as husband and as his wife's legal guardian as a matter of course.
Note that the Schiavists have called for a separate lawyer to be named to represent Mrs. Schiavo. That would mean that not one party would purport to speak on Mrs. Schiavo's behalf, but three: Mr. Schiavo's attorney, the Schindlers' attorneys, and the new attorney purportedly representing – aren't they all? -- Mrs. Schiavo. That's not legal representation, it's legal chaos.
Note again, that the Schiavists are conservatives who, when they are not calling for more lawyers and governmental interference in the private matters of the Schiavos, are expressing their distrust of government, and particularly, lawyers. Note too that the Schindlers, who have called on the federal Leviathan to gut the legal process and pervert a private matter, claim that they desire a private solution. If you believe that, I have a great deal for you on a slightly used bridge.
Meanwhile, the Schindlers' attorneys have been getting away with making incredible factual claims, such as that Mrs. Schiavo begged medical staffers not to remove her feeding tube, and that she interacts with her environment. But if you're on the side of the angels, as the Schiavists insist they are, you don't have to lie or exaggerate. (Just try telling that to Schiavist Barbara Stanley, who decided that the truth – that Mr. Schiavo had received $1 million as a result of the malpractice lawsuit – wasn't dramatic enough, so she invented a $20 million payment.)
Contrast such fairy tales with the report by Mrs. Schiavo's former guardian ad litem, Jay Wolfson, that she intermittently makes moaning-like sounds that are very "disconcerting," and initially seems to interact with her environment, until one spends time observing her, and sees that the sounds follow no discernible pattern.
‘Terri is a disabled person; we need greater legal protection for disabled people. The spouse of a disabled person should not have legal power over that person, but must have to share that power with the disabled person's birth family (parents and siblings).'
To speak of Mrs. Schiavo as a "disabled" person, as many Schiavists have, is misleading. Someone who can't walk or who is blind is disabled, though with today's pc regime of double-talk, you could lose your job for saying that. The woman's cerebral cortex liquefied years ago. There's no "there" there.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of the worst laws ever passed in the history of this great republic. It vastly expanded the role of the federal government in the workplace, and has caused numerous deaths, because it gave "rights" to people to do jobs they are manifestly unable to do, like epileptics driving trucks. The ADA prohibits employers from asking the very question they need to ask prospective employees: Do you have any disability that would interfere with your ability to do this job?
Conservatives have for years railed against the ADA , and called for its repeal. And yet, many of these same alleged conservatives are now calling for the expansion of "disability rights." Why? Either it's to get even with that lousy Michael Schiavo, or because they have lost their minds, and are simply demanding anything that occurs to them.
The same social and religious conservatives have, in their support for the family, been adamantly opposed to gay marriage. And yet, many of them are supporting government intervention into the family (to protect the disabled or incapacitated) and the weakening of the bonds of marriage. Again, these people either don't really support marriage, they don't know what they support, or they have lost their minds.
I didn't marry my mother; I married my wife. And if I were to become a vegetable, and my mother or father or sister could get a judge to force my wife to somehow "share" or cede altogether her power to make decisions on my behalf, the judge would, in effect, be dissolving my marriage. No one can dissolve the Schiavos' marriage but Mr. Schiavo.
Judge Greer ruled, "By clear and convincing evidence, it was determined she did not want to live under such burdensome conditions and that she would refuse such medical treatment-assistance."
The Schiavists insist that the feeding tube is not even basic care. They foresee Mrs. Schiavo receiving every kind of physical and occupational therapy, which, they assure us, would have miraculous effects on her. And the fact that she has not received such therapy over the past 15 years is proof, they say, that Mrs. Schiavo has suffered medical neglect.
Had Mrs. Schiavo actually suffered medical neglect, she would have died years ago. Recall what Jay Wolfson said about the quality of her care. But the Schiavists think that claiming medical neglect helps their case, and so they claim neglect, the truth be damned.
In the real world, few nursing home patients get such care as the Schiavists and the Schindlers demand. The "accountability books" will show that the patients receive therapy, but in the half-dozen or so nursing homes I'm familiar with, the nurse aides simply lie in their notations, in reporting that they gave their patients therapy. If they don't lie (in New York State , at least), the home will face sanctions and fines, and the nurse aides will be fired. In many homes, the nurse aides simply don't have the time; in others, they are too lazy. (Nurse aides also lie in recording patients' pulse rates, in simply copying the previous reading, in most cases because they don't know how to take a pulse.) It is remarkable that in the nursing home and hospice where Mrs. Schiavo has resided, the aides kept such honest, accurate records.
In Mrs. Schiavo's case, however, the feeding tube is a form of life support, the functional equivalent of a ventilator, and thus an extraordinary measure. (Full disclosure: This is not a popular position.) Thousands of people receive nourishment through a "feeding tube," known in nursing as a "g-tube," but many of those people simply have a problem swallowing or a related gastric problem. They can speak or otherwise communicate with the world; Mrs. Schiavo can't. Her only connection to the world is through that g-tube.
When my grandmother was felled by a series of strokes just before her 80 th birthday, although she was, as folks said at the time, "vegetating," she could still swallow. And so for over three years, nursing home staffers fed her pureed food. And at the beginning, unlike Mrs. Schiavo, Nana did occasionally talk, as if in a dream. I recall her once talking about "paper," telling someone to get her some paper. (She had been an executive secretary, and later served as our hometown's deputy registrar.)
But soon thereafter, Nana stopped talking. She wasted away, and after three years, she died.
I realized after the first year that Nana was dead, even though her heart was still pumping. I grieved for her in private. But my aunt would not face reality. Like Mrs. Schiavo's parents and lawyers, she projected signs of mental life onto Nana.
The Schiavists insist that the Terri Schiavo case is ultimately about whether one is pro-life. They insist that Mr. Schiavo is committing euthanasia, in other words, murder, and that supporting life in this case is no different than opposing abortion. They believe that they have the law, morality, and God on their side.
Well, the courts have repeatedly disagreed with the Schiavists regarding the law, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Recall the adages I quoted at the top, regarding hard cases and the bluntness of the law. The Schiavists want to make law based on hard cases, and want that law to perform moral micro-surgery. They then want to wash their hands of all the terrible consequences for the law, the institution of marriage, and federalism. If you force the law to handle such specific, complex issues, you will get something, but it will not necessarily be recognizable as law.
I also refuse to believe that the Schiavists have the moral high ground, without even considering all their lies.
But even their religious claims are suspect.
Acting on my suspicions, I spoke with my Chicago-area writer friend, Jim Bowman. Jim is a veteran journalist who has written on religion for some 37 years, as well as literature, politics, and the newspaper trade. He wrote the book, Priests at Work: Catholic Pastors Tell How They Apply Church Law in Difficult Cases, and maintains the blogs Blithely, Blithely, Chicago Newspapers, and The Churches.
But before Jim went into journalism, and got married and raised six wonderful children, he was a Jesuit priest. And so I asked him about the Schiavists' allegations of adultery and murder against Mr. Schiavo. (Note that the official Catholic position, as expressed by Pope John Paul II, opposes the removal of Mrs. Schiavo's g-tube.)
Adultery: "As long as she's alive, strictly speaking, he's an adulterer. They would punt, frankly."
In other words, the priest would likely withhold making a judgment.
"If the guy came up to him and said, ‘Forgive me, Father,' I don't know what they would say, but it's quite possible they would say, ‘Do the best you can,' and they wouldn't try to be in judgment in this particular case … now that he's got the children that are depending on him."
In this regard, Bowman was speaking analogous to the case of the "bad marriage" in Priests at Work. A "bad marriage" is a Catholic euphemism for one that is forbidden, according to Church law, since it follows a divorce, which is forbidden by Church law. Priests are not supposed to accept such errant sheep into the flock. But of course, they do.
What about the issue of murder?
"That has to do with so-called extraordinary means…. That is a consecrated expression in moral theology.
"In the standard teaching that I heard years ago, long before any liberalization might have taken place, was that you're not obliged to take any extraordinary means to keep the patient alive.
"Now, some may say, well, look, the feeding tube maybe once was extraordinary but it isn't anymore … whether she's in a vegetative state … wouldn't matter anyhow. I mean the question is keeping her alive by an extraordinary means. That's the whole issue. Is it extraordinary or isn't it? If it is, then you're not obliged to" take extraordinary means.
Bowman then spoke of how when his extended family faced the coming death of his aged in-laws, the family bonds ultimately came out stronger. Then he returned to the public issues.
"There are philosophical issues and there are governmental issues. So that's why the stakes are so high. The thing is loaded. And it's a battle in terms of the whole life issue."
Jim brought up Robert Novak's column that day, in which Novak told of journalists yelling at each other across the generations and across dinner tables in the most cantankerous intramural disputes seen since the Vietnam War, and in which traditional political positions were often being switched.
That reminded me of the battle royal I mentioned above, in which liberal Laurence Tribe argued for states' rights, and religious conservative Jay Alan Sekulow argued for federal intervention into a state matter.
"There are two things operating in the Christian framework. One is to protect life, and the other is to accept death.
"[Jim's wife] said, ‘Well, what do you think Dr. White would do?'" regarding the Schiavo case. "Dr. [Gregory J.] White was our doctor for many years. A very big pro-life doctor. He founded the La Leche League, promoting breastfeeding. He delivered his kids at home …
"He didn't believe in pain, but he sure was very skeptical about medicine, and what you would use on this or that. He died recently at 80. He and his wife had 10 or 11 kids. And he delivered his own kids at home, after about the third or so, when they got fed up with the hospital experience. Anyhow, in the middle of raising those kids, a lovely late-teenaged daughter, a poet, got sick and died of natural causes. And died at home. Born at home, died at home.
"In the middle of the night, when she expired, they woke up the other kids, ‘Come on in and let's say a prayer.'
"There is an acceptance of it that doesn't fit with a frenzied, all-out effort to save life, no matter what, see? And that's part of the Christian business too, you know. You're not going to be callous about it. On the one hand you don't want to be callous about it, but on the other, you've got this fact of the Christian existence. You accept death. You don't rage against the dying of the light, with Dylan Thomas. That's not the Christian approach at all.
"And you could question the approach of, say, the parents, who are absolutely frenzied in their wanting to keep the flicker of life.
[Stix:] The weird thing is, this may sound very cynical, but a lot of this for me boils down to the war between the parents and the husband. It's like an ugly divorce.
"And at the same time, you've got these other [religious/political] issues, whether you like it or not. They're a part of it."
If I take Jim Bowman's perspective seriously – and I always take Jim seriously – what we may have in the Schiavo case and others to come is, beyond the mundane hatreds, a confused melding of mutually incompatible Christian religious and American secular ideas regarding the sanctity of life.
Nicholas Stix can be reached at email@example.com.
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