Why Congress was right to stick up for Terri Schiavo.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
March 23 2005 7:50 AM

Not Dead at All

Why Congress was right to stick up for Terri Schiavo.

(Continued from Page 1)

9. The whole society has a stake in making sure state courts are not tainted by prejudices, myths, and unfounded fears—like the unthinking horror in mainstream society that transforms feeding tubes into fetish objects, emblematic of broader, deeper fears of disability that sometimes slide from fear to disgust and from disgust to hatred. While we should not assume that disability prejudice tainted the Florida courts, we cannot reasonably assume that it did not.

10. Despite the unseemly Palm Sunday pontificating in Congress, the legislation enabling Ms. Schiavo's parents to sue did not take sides in the so-called culture wars. It did not dictate that Ms. Schiavo be fed. It simply created a procedure whereby the federal courts could decide whether Ms. Schiavo's federally protected rights have been violated.

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In the Senate, a key supporter of a federal remedy was Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a progressive Democrat and longtime friend of labor and civil rights, including disability rights. Harkin told reporters, "There are a lot of people in the shadows, all over this country, who are incapacitated because of a disability, and many times there is no one to speak for them, and it is hard to determine what their wishes really are or were. So I think there ought to be a broader type of a proceeding that would apply to people in similar circumstances who are incapacitated."

I hope against hope that I will never be one of those people in the shadows, that I will always, one way or another, be able to make my wishes known. I hope that I will not outlive my usefulness or my capacity (at least occasionally) to amuse the people around me. But if it happens otherwise, I hope whoever is appointed to speak for me will be subject to legal constraints. Even if my guardian thinks I'd be better off dead—even if I think so myself—I hope to live and die in a world that recognizes that killing, even of people with the most severe disabilities, is a matter of more than private concern.

Clearly, Congress's Palm Sunday legislation was not the "broader type of proceeding" Harkin and I want. It does not define when and how federal court review will be available to all of those in the shadows, but rather provides a procedure for one case only. To create a general system of review, applicable whenever life-and-death decisions intersect with disability rights, will require a reasoned, informed debate unlike what we've had until now. It will take time. But in the Schiavo case, time is running out.

Harriet McBryde Johnson was a disability rights lawyer in Charleston, S.C. Her memoir in stories is Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales From a Life.

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