[Paleopsych] The Age (au): Why the pro-life lobby lost a do-or-die battle
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Mon Apr 4 17:34:24 UTC 2005
Why the pro-life lobby lost a do-or-die battle
The Age (Melbourne)
The legal case to keep Terri Schiavo alive failed because of
ineptitude, writes Michael Cook.
With the impending death of Terri Schiavo, US euthanasia advocates
have scored a public relations hat-trick. Within a single month Clint
Eastwood won an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside,
about a quadriplegic who commits suicide, was feted as the best
Now, after more than a decade of litigation, a 41-year-old
brain-damaged Florida woman is slowly dying at her husband's request.
What's more, recent polls show that most Americans are so confused
about end-of-life treatment that they think that this is a good thing.
Who is to blame for this fear of extreme disability? Pro-lifers might
plausibly blame "left-leaning media" for the Oscars. But the fate of
Terri Schiavo is an own goal. Their lawyers were outsmarted at every
turn by George Felos, the lawyer for Schiavo's husband.
Felos was the heavy artillery of the right-to-die movement, a cunning
strategist who had won Florida's most influential right-to-die case in
1989, and who is a media-savvy talk-show guest.
Schiavo's death warrant was effectively signed in 2000, with a
decision by Florida judge George Greer that she would have chosen to
have her tube removed. It is this judgement that was upheld time and
time again by superior courts. Pro-life bloggers have demonised Greer.
But they ought to read some of the evidence.
First of all, the Schindler family were tricked. They are loving and
compassionate people, but they were manoeuvred into giving a
incredibly distorted picture of what the Catholic Church teaches about
patients in a persistent vegetative state.
Her brother said that it would be a joy for him to see Schiavo alive -
in a respirator or with limbs amputated.
Her mother stated that discomfort or pain was not a factor in
discontinuing life support. The mother and the brother and sister all
agreed that if they were in Schiavo's situation and had gangrenous
limbs that had to be amputated, they would choose that rather than
But Catholics are not masochists. Their church has always taught, in
the words of a 1980 Vatican document, that patients can "refuse forms
of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome
prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick
person in similar cases is not interrupted".
To compound the confusion, Felos wheeled out a hospital chaplain,
Father Gerard Murphy, as "an expert in the area of the Catholic
Church's position on end of life care". Father Murphy said that
removing Schiavo's feeding tube was consistent with his church's
teaching. This is nonsense, of course. The Pope, also an expert on the
Catholic Church's position, recently stated that "a sick person in a
vegetative state . . . still has the right to basic health care
(nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc)." But given the
uncertainty about Schiavo's religious beliefs and the apparent
insensitivity of her family, Greer found Murphy's testimony
sympathetic and "completely candid".
Still worse were the medical experts. Felos easily found two "clear
and convincing" neurologists who testified that Schiavo was in a
persistent vegetative state. With all of the American medical
profession a phone call away, the Schindlers' team wheeled out two
One was a Dr William Maxfield, who was not even a neurologist, but an
expert in hyperbaric medicine - breathing pressurised oxygen.
The other was a Dr William Hammesfahr, a neurologist whose garish
website touts him as a "Nobel Prize nominee". Nobel Prize winners
normally publish papers in major journals, unlike Dr Hammesfahr, whose
publications are few and obscure. However, he was a 1992 keynote
speaker for the Alabama Academy of Osteopathic Physicians. You get the
picture: one random and one shonk.
To break the tie, Greer engaged a fifth neurologist, Dr Ronald
Cranford. He is well spoken and highly convincing. He is also a
spokesman for the right-to-die movement. His testimony tilted the
The fundamental problem with the case mounted by the Schindler family
is that they depicted Schiavo's plight as a religious issue.
In fact, it is a human rights issue. Schiavo is not in pain and is not
dying. She is not on life support. Her care is not expensive. Why does
her disability deserve a death sentence?
The American disability lawyer and activist Harriet McBryde Johnson
put it clearly: "This belief that withdrawing a feeding tube is
different than other killing - why is that a reasonable distinction? I
haven't heard anybody say it would be OK to kill Terri Schiavo if she
weren't on a feeding tube."
Given that US law favours living wills, even though studies have shown
that they often don't work, the fight to save Schiavo's life was bound
to be difficult. But it could have been won if it had been fought by
professionals. It wasn't.
Michael Cook is the editor of BioEdge, an email newsletter on
mcook at australasianbioethics.org
* Michael Gawenda: Schiavo: playing God and politics
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