Terri Schiavo's persistent legislative state.

Science, technology, and life.
March 21 2005 10:16 PM

Culture Vultures

Terri Schiavo's persistent legislative state.

This weekend, three guys carrying bread tried to push past police officers guarding Terri Schiavo's hospice. It's good they were arrested, because if they'd fed her the bread, she would have choked. Anyone familiar with her condition knows she can't eat solids. The guys weren't there to feed her. They were there, in front of the cameras, to make a point.

A few days ago, two congressional committees subpoenaed Schiavo to testify before them. Testify? She's impervious and mute. "The purpose of the subpoenas is to preserve the evidence," explained a committee chairman. The evidence was Schiavo.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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This is the problem with many of the people trying to save Schiavo. They aren't really talking about her. I don't mean the Republican strategists who told senators she was "a great political issue" that could excite "the pro-life base" and hurt Democrats. I mean real pro-lifers. President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay keep saying the case is about "defending life," "a presumption in favor of life," "building a culture of life," and the dignity of the human person. But presumptions and cultures are generalities.

Protesters at the hospice talk the same way. One claims to be there because "Terri represents a new category of people whose lives they are starting to say have no value." Another explains, "There's a cultural war going on." The individual, Terri Schiavo, has vanished into a larger point. What remains is the impersonality of personhood, the indignity necessary to protect dignity, the use of one life to make a point about life.

Supporters of congressional intervention in the case argue that Schiavo's husband, Michael, isn't the ideal person to decide her fate. Fair enough. I wish he'd authorize an MRI of her brain, and I'm not thrilled that he's nominally married to her while living with another woman. But it's hard to ask a guy who could still have a family to forgo that for a spouse who's been checked out for 15 years. Why doesn't he divorce her so her parents can keep her on the feeding tube? He says it's because she told him she'd never want to be kept alive in such a state. His critics haven't come up with a better explanation for his persistence. Nor can they explain why, if he's such a scumbag, he refuses their offer to relieve him of financial responsibility for Terri and to let him keep her trust fund.

But the questions about Michael are just the beginning. If you're going to scrutinize the fitness of family members to make medical decisions, you have to look at everyone. Take Schiavo's mom, who calls her daughter "my life." Schiavo's parents have circulated video clips purporting to show that their daughter responds to stimuli. Skeptics point out that the clips omit hours of unresponsiveness—suggesting that her "responses" may be random—and that doctors who examined her in person concluded that she wasn't really interacting with other people. Still, the videos tell a story. In one, Schiavo gags over an oral swab, and a male voice comments, "She don't like that, does she?" In another, her eyes fail to follow a balloon, and a voice says, "Terri, no, no. Come on." Then her eyes move, and the voice infers, "Oh, you see that, don't you, huh?" Schiavo's eyes bug out in a couple of videos, but only when her head slips—or is moved by her mother—from its resting place. A voice in the background tells her, "Good job!" The videos are agonizing not because they show a woman regaining awareness, but because they show the people around her laboring to interpret every twitch that way.

In some scenes, Schiavo's mother speaks to her, kisses her, and shifts her position. The longest video, made surreptitiously  by Schiavo's parents in violation of a court order, depicts them fishing for reactions. In the five-minute clip, her mother repeats one word 40 to 50 times. The word is "mommy" or "ma." When Schiavo fails to respond to a cue, her mother prods, "Look over at mommy." "Come on," she tells her daughter. "Over here," she says. "Hey." Not until the mother gets right up in the daughter's face does the daughter make a sound resembling a moan. If the daughter is expressing something about her mother, it looks as close to misery as to joy.

The point isn't that Schiavo's parents are bad or that she's expressing anything about them. I'm no more qualified to draw such conclusions than you are. The point is that once people like you, me, and Tom DeLay start second-guessing the judges, doctors, and families who know a case firsthand, it never ends. The "culture of life" becomes a regime of ham-fisted political reinvestigation that does for ethics what medieval barbers did for health.

If Congress makes such decisions, here's the kind of judgment you'll get. At a press conference Saturday, one Republican congressman said his colleagues were intervening in the case "so that this young woman can continue to make her parents as happy as she has"—as though that were the purpose of her existence. DeLay accused Democrats of starving Schiavo to death. He called it "medical terrorism." One day DeLay said she'd die slowly of starvation; the next, he said Congress had to move fast because she'd die quickly of dehydration. Frist, who has asserted special credibility "as a physician," claimed that "neurologists who have examined her insist today that she is not in a persistent vegetative state"—neglecting to mention that neurologists who testified in court concluded the opposite. On the Senate floor, Frist claimed to have "been in a situation such as this many, many times," when in fact he had never made such an evaluation. On the basis of the family videos, he challenged the assessment made by doctors who had examined Schiavo in person.

When it's your turn to face an end-of-life decision, here's the kind of scrutiny you'll get. Two neurologists and a judge won't be enough, according to Frist: Congress will "go and collect more information, have neurologists come in." A second judge will be empowered to "make new findings of fact." DeLay wants to deprive judges of discretion because "when you affirmatively give the judge the discretion not to put the tube back in, they won't." Everyone has to be involved. "For one person in one state court to make this decision is too heavy," says DeLay. "It does take all of us to think this through."