Terri Schiavo and the "Culture of Life"


Michelle Mairesse

Nothing in Theresa Marie Schindler's early life foreshadowed the sinister celebrity of her last years. A shy brunette who wore glasses and had a permanent weight problem, she grew up with her younger brother and sister in a comfortable suburban community near Philadelphia. When she attended an all-girls Catholic high school, she was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. She shared the musical and cinematic preferences of her girlfriends--except for clothes-shopping. Nothing she wore could disguise her obesity. From an early age, she liked and empathized with animals. Her collection of stuffed animals, over a hundred of them, reflected her ambition to work in a zoo one day.

Under the direction of a pediatrician, she slimmed down considerably when she attended Bucks County Community College. There she met and dated Michael Schiavo. Michael, according to Terri's sister, was the first boy to pay attention to Terri. In November 1984, their long engagement culminated in a huge nuptial celebration attended by 250 wedding guests.

For a few months, money was so tight for the newlyweds that they roomed in the Schindler family's basement. In 1988, they moved to Florida, where Terri's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, had retired. Terry and Michael quickly found employment and rented a small apartment. In sunny Florida, Terry was experimenting with a new version of herself. She had become a svelte blonde weighing 110 pounds. Clothes-shopping was fun. She drove a new Toyota. Her job as an insurance clerk gave her free time to sunbathe on the beach and visit clubs with friends.

     Mary Schindler worried that her daughter was not eating properly, but Terri reassured her. An obstetrician had found no obstacles to conception, so she was undergoing fertility therapy. She and Michael hoped that she would eventually become pregnant. She did not confide to her mother or anyone else how her obsession with weight control had led her to follow meals with bouts of induced vomiting.

At 5:30 in the morning of February 5, 1990, Michael, who worked nights as a restaurant manager, was startled awake by the sound of a loud thump in the hall. He found his wife lying face-down on the floor and making a gurgling noise. He quickly rushed her to the hospital.

For weeks, Michael haunted the intensive care unit hoping for signs of recovery. Attending doctors believed that his wife's heart, deprived of oxygen, had stopped beating for five minutes owing to a potassium imbalance resulting from Terri's eating disorder. The oxygen deficiency had devastated her cerebral cortex, they said, leaving it filled with scar tisue and spinal fluid. They diagnosed her condition as a persistent vegetative state.

     Neurologists make definite distinctions between coma and persistent vegetative state. Coma patients have closed eyes and are unresponsive to stimuli. Persistent vegetative state patients have a normal sleep-wake cycle and open their eyes. However, persistent vegetative state patients exhibit no awareness of self or environment; they exhibit no evidence of sustained, reproducible, purposeful, or voluntary behavioral responses to visual, auditory, tactile, or noxious stimuli and no evidence of language comprehension or expression. A persistent vegetative state generally results from traumatic brain injuries or metabolic imbalances.

Dr. Ronald Cranford
In a March 2005 television interview with Dan Abrams, Dr. Ronald Cranford, assistant chief of neurology at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and faculty member at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, described how he diagnosed Terri Schiavo after examining her in 2002 and testifying to her condition in court. Of the eight neurologists who examined her in 2002, seven of them said Terri Schiavo was in a vegetative state. Cranford said that her CT scan showed severe atrophy of the brain, her EEG was flat, and she had undoubtedly been in a permanent vegetative state since 1990. He believes that the parents are indulging in wishful thinking when they attribute responses to her.

"No credible neurologist has come along who's examined her who's said she's not in a vegetative state. It's just what they want to see. And you can see how scary the tapes are that show her apparently interacting with her eyes open. But her eyes are open, but she's not even looking at her mother when you look at those tapes."

     The dissenting neurologist was one Dr. William Hammesfahr, who devised a discredited treatment for stroke victims. He was disqualified by the Florida Medical Board and never published in any legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Nevertheless, television host Sean Hannity falsely introduced him as a Nobel nominee and never questioned Doctor Hammesfahr's contention that with the right treatment Terri would be going out, seeing movies, and enjoying life.

While showing Dan Abrams the most recent CT scan done on Terri, one dating from 2002, Dr. Cranford commented that the scan showed severe atrophy.

2002 CAT scan
"Where those black areas are, that should be white. That should be cerebral cortex, and so really there is no cerebral cortex left. It's just a shrinkage of the cerebral cortex. It's a thin band of white on the outside and any neurologist or any radiologist looking at those CT scans will tell you that her atrophy could not be more severe than it is. So even if she were mentally conscious, which she's not, she's irreversible. She's been like this for 15 years, Dan, and that CT scan shows the most extreme severe atrophy of the higher centers of the brain."
Later in the interview, Dr. Cranford commented that edited tapes and still photos falsely make it appear that the patient is interacting. "That's what the vegetative state is. It looks like they're interacting, but they're really not. And there's nothing I can do to change that."

The talk shows continued to feature Dr. Hammesfahr and his ilk anyway. Dr. Theresa Buck, the staff physician at Terri's hospice, was unable to convince her mother and her mother-in-law that Terri was in a vegetative state. The physician's relatives believed what they heard on television--that Terri Schiavo was talking and making requests.

     Early on, both families continued to hope that Terri would revive. Michael sold hot dogs on the beach to raise money for the various therapies he ordered for Terri. He even flew her to California for an implant of platinum electrodes. Nothing availed, but he continued to oversee her care, dressing her in new clothes, perfuming her, bringing flowers to her room. Finally, to better supervise the care of his wife, he enrolled in school and became a registered nurse. The hospice nurses resented his constant demands, although they admitted that Michael was the kind of man they wanted in their corner when they were ill.

     In 1992, the Schiavos were awarded over a million dollars in two medical malpractice suits. $750,000 went into a trust fund for Terri's care, and $300,000 went to Michael. Robert Schindler In February 1993, Michael and his father-in-law were permanently estranged when Robert Schindler demanded a share of the money, according to Michael. Untrue, say the Schindlers.

     Whatever happened, the Schindlers launched an all-out campaign to have Michael removed as Terri's guardian, charging neglect, abuse, and adultery. (Michael was now living with his girlfriend.) A judge dismissed their action.

     The Schindlers enlisted the support of the ultra-conservative Philanthropy Roundtable, a collection of foundations with assets of two billion dollars to lavish on their pet causes: abolishing social security, outlawing birth control and abortion clinics, making prayer mandatory in public schools, and prohibiting stem cell research. Some of these foundations have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Schindlers' cause. The Schindlers themselves solicit donations for the Schindler-Schiavo Foundation on their website. They recently agreed to give the names of all their contributors to a conservative direct-marketing firm in exchange for the firm's services in solicitiing more donations.

     In 1998, Michael petitioned a Florida state court to permit removal of Terri's feeding tube. The Schindlers opposed him in court. The court-appointed guardian for Terri was perturbed by the Schindlers' vehemence; they said they would never remove the feeding tube under any circumstances, even if their daughter had specifically requested them to do so. The judge ruled for Michael, and the tube was removed in 2001. The Schindlers appealed the decision, and the tube was reconnected.

"They don't like me because they want the money," Schiavo told King in a 2003 interview.

     In November 2002, the court found that Mrs. Schiavo would not recover and ordered her feeding tube removed again. Almost a year later, the tube was removed, prompting Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature to pass a new law, Terri's Law, Jeb Bush specifically demanding that the tube be reconnected.

     In September 2004, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Terri's Law unconstitutional. At this time, House Majority Leader Tom Delay was fending off widespread criticism of his possibly criminal and definitely unethical conduct. Never one to miss an opportunity, he expressed his outrage over the Florida court's decision and vowed to leap into the breach on Terri's behalf.

     Tom Delay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist summoned Congress back from recess to pass emergency legislation requiring federal courts to hear the Schiavo case. With only faint protests from House Democrats and none from Senate Democrats, Congress, after midnight, approved the law. For the first time since he took office, President George Bush interrupted a leisurely Crawford vacation. He headed to the capital on Airforce One and signed the bill in the wee hours of the morning.

     Considering that approximately forty judges in six courts had reviewed the case, federal jurists were unimpressed with the congressional fiat. One Republican appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote that the intervention of Congress violated the Constitution.

      By March 30, the Florida Supreme Court and a United States District Court had denied the Schindlers' appeals. For the sixth time, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear another appeal.

     Meanwhile, the Schindlers and their supporters gathered outside the hospice where Terri lay dying. They carried protest signs, shouted and Mrs. Schindler mugged for the cameras, heckled the workers entering the hospice, and provided bits of fairground entertainment for the cameras and bystanders.

     A Christian husband-and-wife juggling team said God had sent them to perform for Terri. Antiabortion crusader Scott Heldreth and his son also claimed to be present on God's orders. It just goes to show that the deity works in mysterious ways, because Heldreth is a registered sex offender. The animal rights people showed up. Perhaps it was one of theirs who paraded a hat-wearing chicken around the arena. Randall Terry, another antiabortion crusader with an arrest record, assumed a prominent role in the circus, helpfully staging such maudlin events as "innocent" children being arrested by the police.

     Terri died on the morning of March 31. Outside, a trumpet player was on hand to sound a requiem. Forty-one-year-old Theresa Marie Schiavo had died peacefully, with a stuffed tabby cat tucked under one arm, surrounded by flowers, and embraced by her husband. When he announced his intention to bury her in the family plot in Pennsylvania, the Schindlers announced that they would be holding their own service in Florida. In lieu of flowers, the Schindlers preferred that donations be made to their foundation.

     Despite the hysteria, despite the false witnesses, and despite the inaccurate reports issuing from politicians, pulpits, press, cable television, and radio, the public refused to be stampeded. They believed in the separation of powers and the integrity of our court system. Most of all, they believed that politicians and religious fanatics had no business interfering with an anguished family's private decisions.

Bush       On the day Congress intervened, an ABC poll showed that citizens opposed congressional and presidential involvement by 70% and approved by only 27%. In seven days, Bush's approval rating dropped from 52% to 45%. A Gallup poll spokesman said the numbers probably reflected the public's response to the Schiavo controversy.

     Dizzy with defeat, the old pols lined up to bluster. House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. declared that the federal courts had not given the case the new, full, and fresh review that the law required. Tom Delay threatened, "This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today."

     The hypocrisy of the political right has never been greater. The Schiavo case was not unique. Families and doctors make the decision to remove life-support on a daily basis. Within a fortnight, Tom Delay made the decision to withdraw life-support from his father, who had suffered brain damage in an accident. Terri Schiavo's father made the same decision for his own mother after one week. Even the three Franciscan Brothers of Peace, who accompanied the Schindlers everywhere, had withdrawn life-support from their Order's brain-damaged founder in 2003.

Judge Greer      It was unseemly for notably randy congressmen and talk-show hosts to deplore Michael Shiavo's adultery. It was vicious for fanatics to hurl death threats at Michael Shiavo, his family, and County Judge George Greer. It was vile for conservative fund-raisers to use Terri Schiavo's image in their promotions.

     Finally, it was and is outrageous for radical conservatives to preach to us about the culture of life while their actions promote the culture of living-death. When, after being raped, a pitiful, retarded girl asked for an abortion, Governor Jeb Bush appointed a guardian--for the fetus. As Governor of Texas George Bush chalked up a record number of executions, making jokes about his refusal to extend reprieves. As president, he has brought back over 1600 dead soldiers' bodies--all under cover of darkness, no photos allowed.

     Your living-death conservative, like his peers in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, approves the death penalty for criminals. He allows corporations to determine how much poison water we drink and how much toxic air we breathe. He rejects any scientific conclusions that interfere with his agenda. He finds the sight of an exposed feminine breast more offensive than the sight of beggars and homeless people. He justifies torture.

Bush's culture of life scam          He prefers deadly lies to liberating truths.

     Because he blights the ground he walks on, we must strip him and his kind of any power over us and reclaim the true culture of life!

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