Blind Man's Love
The lesson of Terri Schiavo's autopsy.
According to Terri Schiavo's autopsy report, her "lateral geniculate nucleus (visual) demonstrated transneuronal degeneration with gliosis." Or, as the medical examiner put it in plainer English, "Her vision centers of her brain were dead. Therefore, Mrs. Schiavo had what's called cortical blindness. She was blind, could not see."
That isn't what Schiavo's parents, pro-lifers, and congressional Republicans told us all these years. They said videos showed her eyes following people and objects. "In the video footage, which you can actually see on the Web site today, she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist declared three months ago as he spearheaded a congressional invasion of the case.
To pro-lifers, the meaning of the videos was as plain as the eyes on your face. "Streaming video of Terri Schiavo apparently glad to see her mom," one Web site advertised. "Terri looks over, sees her mom and gets a huge smile on her face," reported another. "As you can readily see, Terri is obeying commands," said a third. Several sites posted a common list of video links that began with Terri watching a balloon and Terri's alert eyes. "Seeing is believing," they concluded. "Now that you have seen, do you believe that this woman deserves to be starved and dehydrated to death?"
But now we know she was blind. She didn't see her mom. She didn't see the balloon. Her eyes weren't alert. We didn't see in her what we thought we saw.
How did we get it wrong? We know what blinded her. But what blinded us?
Let's look back at some of those videos. Start with Terri watching a balloon. It shows her eyes gliding up, down, this way, and that as a doctor entreats her:
Look over here. Terri? Terri—there you go. Can you follow that, Terri? There you go. Can you follow that at all? Terri? Come on. Terri, no, no. Over—come on. I'm using both sound and—can you follow that? Huh? Can you see that? Okay. Look over here. Look over here. That's fine. Look over here. Okay. Look over here. That's it. Look at there. Now, come on over here. Now, come on over here. Oh, you see that, don't you, huh? You do follow that a bit, don't you, huh? Okay. Look up here. That's good.
You can watch the video and draw your own conclusions. But what's striking in retrospect is what you can't see: the balloon. Without it, you can't tell whether she's following it. In fact, her eyes dart back and forth too quickly to reflect the movements of a balloon, even if it were jerked by a human hand. It's easy to overlook this, because your brain succumbs to the audio: "You see that, don't you, huh? You do follow that a bit, don't you?" You didn't see her eyes following the balloon. You heard that you saw it. And when you see the full text of the doctor's words—"Terri? Come on. Terri, no, no. … I'm using both sound and"—you can catch the warning signs you didn't initially hear.
Then there's the clip Schiavo's parents made, edited, and released two years ago in violation of a court order. Pro-lifers said this video "shows Terri apparently interacting with her mother and trying to speak." But watch it closely. Schiavo's mother stands off to the left, pleading with her daughter: "Can you look over here? … Come on. Over here. Look over at Mommy. Hi. Can you look this way? Huh? Can you look this way? Hey." The reason Schiavo's mom keeps pleading is that Schiavo doesn't respond.
Again, the bigger story is what you can't see. In this case, it's the four-plus hours of video from which Schiavo's parents and their supporters selected clips like these. Reporters who have watched the whole video series say it's largely a wasteland. "For nearly an hour, her parents and the doctor tell her to open her eyes, close her eyes, look this way, look that way—with little apparent response," says the St. Petersburg Times. The Times posts a sample clip in which Schiavo's mom, leaning in from the right, asks her daughter, "Can you turn over here and see me? Can you turn over here and see me? Okay. Hey, Sweetheart. Ter." A doctor tells the mother, "Ask her to look at you, would you, Mary?" Schiavo's mom obliges: "Terri? Can you look at Mommy? Can you look at Mommy? Over here. Ter." Nothing happens.
Same thing with the balloon clip. The judge in the Schiavo case notes that elsewhere on the hours of videotape her father "tried several more times to have her eyes follow the Mickey Mouse balloon but without success." The Times reports that at one point
her father gets gruff while trying unsuccessfully to get her to follow [the] balloon. "Come here, Terri, no more fooling around. No more fooling around with your dad." He pokes her in the forehead to make sure she's awake. "No more fooling around with your dad. Listen to me. You see the balloon? You see Mickey?" Later, he apologizes, telling her others have admonished him for his tone.
This is what happens when you deny reality. First you lose your senses, then your mind, then your soul. It isn't Terri Schiavo who's refusing to see what's happening in that awful scene. It's her dad. And it isn't her defect, or her husband's sin, that's revealed in the autopsy report. It's ours. We were blind. We could not see.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Terri Schiavo by Matt May/Getty Images.