The Terri Schiavo Show

And if you don’t think it was a show, think again. Look no further than the evangelical jugglers showing up among the throng of protestors at the hospice which cared for Terri Schiavo during her final days. Jugglers. Come on, you think I could make this stuff up?

The sad fact of the matter is that this case was used as a political fulcrum with which opposing parties could weigh their competing interests. Sure, legislative squabbling plays a role in a healthy political process, but whenever I see a case such as this, where dueling policy-makers claim to have a victim’s well-being in mind, I can’t help but wince. To grapple over legislation is one thing, but to do so under the pretext of exhibiting greater care than a political adversary is utterly hypocritical, not to mention shameful.

Now this may come as a surprise to some, but there was no mass judicial conspiracy to kill Terri Shiavo. This was not a reckless snap decision reached by some cabal of rogue federal judges; numerous witnesses and experts were heard for both sides before her fate was decided, a fate which was revisited time and time again by upwards of two dozen judges. At one point, I actually debated laying out the series of court hearings this case entailed, but then found an excellent summary done by Matt Conigliarao, an appellate attorney in Florida. Check out his info page on the Terri Schiavo case; it’s worth a read. The unfortunate reality is that, for all intents and purposes, Ms. Schiavo was gone long before the legal battle to remove the feeding tube transpired. Physically, her body lived on, reliant upon a machine for nourishment, but it was no longer inhabited by the person who was Terri Shiavo.

But back to these renegade judges. I was in awe when, shortly after Ms. Schiavo’s death, I read that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay actually said, in reference to the presiding judges in the case, “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” Immediately, the question occurred to me: hold them accountable for what? For upholding the law, both state and federal? Remarks such as this go a long way in highlighting how out-of-touch some lawmakers are with our policital system. In all fairness, Mr. DeLay did later apologize for his off-the-cuff remark. Part of me can understand his carelessness; to be sure, this particular case was an emotional one for many, and who can claim to have never done or said something rash when it comes to things of the heart? I certainly can not. Those on the other side of the aisle did not help matters, either; Democrats were quick to fan the flames of controversy sparked by DeLay’s comments, in true bipartisan fashion.

It appears, however, that Tom DeLay has not abandoned his crusade to single-handedly overhaul the federal judiciary. He has repeatedly called for the House of Representatives to find a way to hold the federal judiciary accountable for its decisions. “The judiciary has become so activist and so isolated from the American people that it’s our job to do that,” he said. This is a statement completely out of comprehension for my feeble mind, considering I know of no ties federal judges are supposed to share with the “American people.” To me, such would imply that judges should play more of a role in establishing governing policy based on popular opinion; however, the organization of our political system seeks to prohibit just that. Judges owe their allegiance to the law, not to an American constituency as legislators do. The argument that federal judges do not heed public or legislative outcry is one of illegitimacy.

Toss into the fray the fact that the media was in typical form during this whole ordeal, more concerned with sensationalism than accurate, uncolored journalism, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a show. The majority of the images presented to me by major media outlets involved the same few scenes of Ms. Schiavo smiling and seemingly tracking objects with her eyes as they passed in front of her face. I practically believed I might run into her walking down the street on my lunch break. How could they condemn this woman to death? She was FINE! It’s an outrage! And so it would appear that the media succeeded in pitting federal judges against the world, or at least much of it. There it was on television, plain as day; Terri Schiavo was alive and well. Nevermind the insurmountable evidence of her legally-pertinent status of persistently vegetative.

As for the great controversy surrounding the situation, I am bit confused about the main point of contention in this whole case: the assertion that Terri Schiavo was denied her right to due process. Opponents of the feeding tube removal claim that in situations involving life or death, the judicial system should err on the side of life. I think that’s a fair assertion, absolutely; but it seems to me that’s exactly what occurred. Again, I’ll refer you to Matt Conigliarao’s info page on the case. He did an excellent job of laying out the timeline, one which involved upwards of 22 different judges spanning a period of almost seven years. Due process? I challenge you to find a case better addressing a victim’s due process right than this one. On the contrary, it’s a model example of when the process worked RIGHT; there was ample opportunity for appeals and injunctions, giving opposing parties the benefit of the doubt and ensuring that the correct decision was made.

So, as a concerned citizen who actually made it this far in reading this post, you might say to yourself, “well then there’s no place for my opinion in cases such as this.” WRONG. In fact, it was the popular opinion of the State of Florida, through its popularly elected representatives, that laid the groundwork for this case to play out exactly as it did. The judiciary operates within those constraints set forth by (in this case) the state legislature. Florida law allows for an individual to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, as many states do. Florida law does not require such refusal to be in writing; a victim’s desire to forego life-sustaining medical treatment can be legally established through testimony of those closest to her. Such was done in the case of Ms. Schiavo; current legislation was followed. You may personally disagree with such legislation, but the court system is not the proper venue in which to advance such disagreement. Florida legislature has set hurdles that need to be cleared in order to remove an individual’s feeding tube; those hurdles can be raised or lowered according to popular voice, but once a case has cleared such hurdles it is not legally responsible to simply cry foul and ask for a redo. Florida courts made their decisions based on Florida law, legislation enacted by state representatives. In the case of Ms. Schiavo, individuals were seeking to influence the judical process through policy-making; such conduct should instead be directed toward the legislature. If Floridians do not agree with current Florida law, the effort to amend it should be made within the state congress.

Now, what issues related to this case might be considered when approaching a state’s congress? One issue is the question of whether a person should be kept alive when dependent on medical treatment. Florida, like many states, grants citizens the right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, which is what Ms. Schiavo did through the testimony and accounts of those who knew her best. One might also question whether a feeding tube should even be considered medical treatment. After all, aside from requiring forced nourishment, her body was essentially keeping itself alive; there was no pending affliction or biological system failure to bring about her death. She died of starvation alone. Lastly, but perhaps just as importantly, is the issue of whether there should be a required form that a living will must take to be legally enforceable. In this case, the judge found clear and convincing evidence through testimony that Terri Schiavo would not want to be kept alive. If there had been a statutory requirement for a written living will, it is likely that much of the legal wrangling, and in fact publicity, would have been avoided.

My personal feelings on this case are torn. My heart goes out to parents who wanted nothing but to save their little girl, and condemning an individual to death is an act that should never be lightly undertaken. But in the end, I believe that so much attention was afforded Ms. Schiavo’s legal right to live that there was little acknowledgement of her legal right to die; thus, once her desire to refuse medical treatment was legally established, I believe she deserved the legal protection necessary to carry out her final wish.

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