OPINION: Terri Schindler-Schiavo: an American tragedy

The heartbreaking saga of Terri Schindler-Schiavo is nearing its end as the legal and political maneuvers surrounding her wind down. The Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice continues to be the focus of media attention as this is written, with the encampment of journalists swelled by the presence of protesters, the curious, and law enforcement officers.

It has been 15 years since Terri Schindler-Schiavo lapsed into what most medical doctors have characterized as a “persistent vegetative state” following a heart attack and brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen. During the past decade and a half, the Schindler and Schiavo families have been torn apart as Terri Schindler-Schiavo’s husband, Michael, seeks to honor what he says was Terri’s wish not to be kept artificially alive while her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, contend Terri would wish to be alive.

The heart-rending issue confronting the Schindler and Schiavo families is one that many families have to contend with every day. It is, courtesy of the media coverage, writ large. It has put to the forefront of the agenda the issues of right to life and the right to die, and has many families discussing issues of advance medical directives and living wills.

It has also, regrettably, become a political football used by the Republican Party which has cynically and callously grasped onto this issue in a clear attempt to patronize its “pro-life” base. It has given President Bush in particular an opportunity to sanctimoniously proclaim that “there must be a presumption of life” and that the rights of persons with disabilities must be respected. This coming, of course, from an administration which has sent young men and women to their deaths in Iraq, has regulated restrictions on the Supplemental Security Disability Income (SSDI) program, and whose advocacy for an enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been negligible at best. Despite this record, the civil rights movement for persons with disabilities has found itself supporting the president’s view of this case — for the same reasons they protested against the conclusion of Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning film, “Million Dollar Baby.” Specifically, they argue quite rightly that being disabled isn’t a reason to end one’s life.

Some observers have commented on the contradiction of the Republican philosophy of “less government” while pursuing the most personal of interventions into the Schindler-Schiavo family drama. But it has become abundantly clear that the Republican Party has received a rude awakening, as public opinion indicates widespread opposition to and anger over the effort to politicize this tragedy. The president’s approval rating has dropped markedly, and the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has said there is nothing more he can do. Gov. Bush had previously pursued aggressive legislation, later found to be unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court, on behalf of Terri’s parents.

My own family faced a similar situation, as have so many others. We had to make a decision to remove life support from a family member following a catastrophic stroke. Unlike the Schindler and Schiavo families, my own was united. Every one of us knew what the wishes of this family member were, and we honored those. And we grieved together.

The split between the Schindler and Schiavo families is painful, made even more so in the media glare. Neither side is deserving of anything other than compassion.

If we are to “demonize” anyone, let’s look at the motivations of those politicians who were so quick to attempt to intervene in a matter they knew little of beyond the possible benefits to them at re-election time. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was correct when he said, “I don’t know what [Terri’s] wishes are, and neither do you.” It is the politicization of a family’s tragedy which is deserving of our rejection and our contempt.

Lawrence Albright is a reader of the People’s Weekly World.