March 20, 2005

What We Can't Know About Terri Schiavo

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:10 am

I have avoided blogging about Terri Schiavo for a simple reason: I’m not sure what the answer is. Uncertainty seems to surround every aspect of this situation, and so I am utterly amazed at how certain so many people on both sides seem to be.

According to doctors that have examined her, Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state with virtually no possibility of recovery. According to the LA Times, “the brains of such patients are functioning only at a very rudimentary level…they cannot feel pain, express themselves or receive communication…there really isn’t a significant relationship with the outside world.”

However, patients in a persistent vegetative state are not in a coma, in which the patient is unconscious and can not be aroused. Schiavo is conscious, no matter how minimal that consciousness may be. No one can know for sure what Schiavo’s level of consciousness is or to what extent she is aware of her surroundings. No one can know what it “feels” like for Schiavo, whether she is “suffering” as the right-to-die advocates maintain, or whether she is merely mentally disabled but still “aware” as the right-to-life advocates argue. Even these words create their own uncertainty: do concepts such as “feel”, “suffer” or “awareness” even have meaning for Schiavo, or is her brain function so compromised that we have no words to accurately describe her mental state?

The ambiguities continue. Schiavo’s parents maintain that she is not in a persistent vegetative state, and that she is able to interact with them, while her husband argues the opposite. None of us blogging at a distance, without having sat with Terri Schiavo hour after hour, have any way of knowing who is right. If the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo can’t agree, how are the rest of us going to get any closer to the truth?

Add to this the theological and existential uncertainty. Is Schiavo already in the kingdom of heaven, with her body being a mere vestige of her past life? Or is her soul trapped in this world while her body lives, unable to move on to the next life where she belongs?

Amid all of these uncertainties and unanswerable questions, there seem to be so many people that are so confident, so certain. So many are so quick to judge Michael Schiavo as the selfish and faithless husband. But how can any of us know what it’s like to see your wife’s body without seeing your wife’s mind, her spirit, her soul, inside? I imagine it would be excruciatingly painful. I can’t judge his actions since I haven’t been through anything remotely similar to what he’s experienced. He is accused of living in adultery because he is living with a woman with whom he has had several children. But his wife has been in this state for 15 years! He can’t divorce Terri Schiavo without giving up his rights to visitation and input into her care, but the woman he married is not present, as far as he can see, in his wife’s body. I can’t judge him for moving on, remarrying (in fact if not before the law) and raising a family.

Others want to demonize the parents. But the pain of losing a child is as great, or perhaps greater, than losing a wife. I can’t blame them for wanting to hold on, for seeing in their daughter the echoes of what she once was. I can only imagine that the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo are each dealing with this 15 year tragedy in their own ways, as best they can.

So where does all of this certainty, this complete confidence, come from on both sides of the debate? Where is the humility that recognizes that we see through a glass darkly? How can we be so arrogant to think that those of us so far removed have any idea what is really happening in Terri Schiavo’s, or Michael Schiavo’s or the Schindlers’ souls? Why are we so quick to choose sides, to pick the opinion of one set of experts over another? Why are so many people so quick to judge and condemn Michael Schiavo as greedy and uncaring, or the Schindlers as deluded parents?

This arrogance and conceit has reached an astounding level (combined with some crass political opportunism) in Bill Frist:

Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a renowned heart surgeon before becoming Senate majority leader, went to the floor late Thursday night for the second time in 12 hours to argue that Florida doctors had erred in saying Terri Schiavo is in a “persistent vegetative state.”

“I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office,” he said in a lengthy speech in which he quoted medical texts and standards. “She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli.”

His comments raised eyebrows in medical and political circles alike. It is not every day that a high-profile physician relies on family videotapes to challenge the diagnosis of doctors who examined a severely brain-damaged patient in person.

I believe in the value of life, in the ethic of the seamless garment of life. Where there is doubt, we must err on the side of life. But I also think the politicians, the bloggers and the religious leaders all need to step back and admit just how limited our understanding is, admit that we don’t really know what Terri wants, stop gossiping and demonizing, recognize that this is very painful situation for those closest to Terri Schiavo, and that all of our carping from the sidelines isn’t going to help them come to terms with it.

This is a decision that should be made by those closest to Terri. Since they can’t agree, the courts must step in to adjudicate. But the rest of us should view this situation with utmost humility before God and compassion for all those involved.


  1. […] ongress has passed a law intending to prevent the death of a single individual. As I have already blogged, that may be the right decision (although I reject the idea that Congress knows bette […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » What Makes Me Angry About Schiavo — March 21, 2005 @ 12:06 am

  2. Thank you. It is a very difficult issue. In some ways, if they are voting for her right to die, then she should get at least as humane treatment as a criminal. Lethal injection would be quick and painless. I don’t see any judge voting to do that though….although it does seem more humane thant starvation. I can certainly see both sides.

    Comment by Susan — March 20, 2005 @ 8:22 am

  3. Oops! I don’t finish my thoughts…
    I believe in a merciful God. I don’t have an answer. Except I know I need to get my living well together. And for my husband too. It’s kind of weird because he was in a coma for nearly 3 weeks. He was able to come back and live a great life. And I saw a story on the health Channel about a man who starting talking again after nearly 20 years. Who can say? If she didn’t have a living will, then ultimately, I think those who want to fight for her life should be able to care for her. Her soul may already be in heaven. Her body is still alive for a reason, and we may never know why. Lord, in your mercy….. be with all those who are suffering through this.

    Comment by Susan — March 20, 2005 @ 8:35 am

  4. I guess what bugs me about the situation is that this:

    This is a decision that should be made by those closest to Terri. Since they can’t agree, the courts must step in to adjudicate. But the rest of us should view this situation with utmost humility before God and compassion for all those involved.

    Is essentially what’s happened. (Well, the first part—I don’t think many people involved in this debate are showing much humility before God.) Michael Schiavo decided he couldn’t make a definitive decision, so he allowed the courts to decide. Terri’s family and (primarily Republican) politicians have chosen not to abide by those decisions and are trying to subvert the court system by stepping in.

    These are some useful links that I posted over on WesleyBlog’s post about this:

    Comment by Chris T. — March 20, 2005 @ 12:46 pm

  5. Chris – thanks for the links.

    Susan – thank God for your husband’s health. As I understand it (see Chris’ links), recovery is beyond unlikely in this case, because Terri Schiavo has no cerebral cortex. But, as I posted, I’m relying on blogs, and I don’t want to presume that this is definitive (please, let’s not debate these details here!) But I think your point about lethal injection is a good one. If she’s not truly alive, why not administer a lethal injection instead of pretending that they’re just “letting her die” by not feeding her? If they can’t bring themselves to administer a lethal injection, then perhaps they should let her live.

    Comment by Bob — March 20, 2005 @ 3:19 pm

  6. It is supremely ironic that Bush signed a law, as governor in Texas, called the Futile Care Law, that gives the HOSPITAL the authority to pull the plug, if the family doesn’t have the ability to pay, or if they can’t make other care arrangements within 10 days.

    Of course, THIS isn’t widely known through mainstream media channels.
    It’s not about saving Schiavo. It’s about money, and votes.

    Comment by Osama_Been_Forgotten — March 21, 2005 @ 9:43 am

  7. One of the biggest misunderstandings in this whole case is the concept of “starving to death.” Ask any doctor or nurse who deals with the terminally ill or simply the very old. When the time comes and God is ready to take a person, the body begins to shut down and food intake ends. They don’t “starve,” they just peacefully shut down and go with God. With the aid of medication, it can be a VERY peaceful and dignified end of earthly time and passage
    to the world beyond No one in the media (or the Congress) seems to have bothered to consult with the experts on death and dying. Having just confronted these very difficult and personal decisions with a loved one, I am outraged at the absolute certainty on the part of uninformed and untouched persons.

    On a much more contemplative level, I can’t help wondering whose will it was to put that feeding tube in in the first place…God’s? or humans’?

    Comment by Roberta — March 23, 2005 @ 6:07 am

  8. I am a nurse, and I disagree with Roberta’s long-ago posted
    comment. Terri wasn’t terminal, her case was quite different.
    You can’t compare the situations. While I have heard from
    so-called Christians and others who support Mr. Schiavo, I usually find
    that they were misinformed on her case. It isn’t enough in
    a case such as hers to jump on to some sanctity of marriage
    bandwagon. Less than a year after her death I have already
    seen how this has influenced relatives who think that if they
    can somehow just get their relative into hospice and take the
    tube away…and living wills are dangerous, man are they

    Comment by Kai — January 11, 2006 @ 7:56 pm

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