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Terri Schiavo — A Warning Renewed

My commentary for today, The Culture of Death — Looking Back at Terri Schiavo, considers an important article by Professor Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University. His argument is compelling and ominous. His article, Annihilating Terri Schiavo, published in the June 2005 issue ofCommentary, deserves wide attention.
Another significant (and surprising) article comes from essayist Joan Didion. “The Case of Theresa Schiavo,” published in the June 9, 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books, is a display of Didion’s keen reportorial skills, mixed with considerable insight. Consider these sections from her essay:
“Even after the removal of the feeding tube, she lived thirteen days. The removal of this feeding tube was repeatedly described as ‘honoring her directive.’ This, again, was inaccurate: there was no directive. Any expressed wish in this matter existed only in the belated telling of her husband and two of his relatives (his brother Scott Schiavo and their sister-in-law Joan Schiavo), who testified in a hearing on a 1998 petition that they had heard Theresa express the thought that she would not wish her life to be artificially prolonged. One time she was said to have expressed this thought was when Michael and Scott Schiavo’s grandmother was on life support. ‘If I ever go like that, just let me go,’ Scott Schiavo said that he had heard Theresa say. ‘Don’t leave me there.’ Another expression of the thought, Joan Schiavo testified, occurred when the two women were watching a television movie about a man on a feeding tube: according to Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George J. Felos, what Theresa said was this: ‘No tubes for me.’”
“In fact any notion about what Theresa Schiavo wanted or did not want remained essentially unconfirmable, notwithstanding the fact that a Florida court had in effect accepted the hearsay assertions that she had said, at one point, in reference to her husband’s dying grandmother and at another while watching a television movie about someone with a feeding tube, ‘no tubes for me.’ (Imagine it. You are in your early twenties. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in which someone has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip bowl. “No tubes for me,” you say as you get up to fill it. What are the chances you have given this even a passing thought?) Most commentators nonetheless seemed inclined to regard Theresa Schiavo’s ‘directive’ as a matter of record, even as they undercut their own assumption by reminding us that the “lesson” in the case was “to sit down tonight and write your living will.” Living wills, it was frequently said, could be ‘Terri’s legacy.’”
Addressing ‘living wills’ and ‘advance directives,’ Didion remarked, “The further problem with such directives is that they can be construed as coercive: no one wants to be a ‘burden.’ Few of us want to be perceived as considering our own lives more important than the ongoing life and prosperity of the family. Few of us will sit with a husband or wife or child in a lawyer’s office or a doctor’s office and hesitate to sign the piece of paper that will mean, when the day goes downhill, the least trouble for all concerned. For all the emphasis on the importance of ‘choice,’ the only choice generally approved by the culture is to sign the piece of paper, ‘not be a burden,’ die.”
Joan Didion’s essay is truly significant, since it comes from a writer who cannot be brushed aside by the media elite as a member of the ‘religious right.’ Her analysis is truly chilling.