The autopsy report on Terri Schiavo was released yesterday, and some pundits were quick to jump to conclusions. The report indicates that the pathologist who conducted the autopsy was unable to determine either the cause of the cardiological disruption that caused her brain injury or the precise nature of her mental state after the injury. In any event, an autopsy is unable to determine whether a patient was in a “persistent vegetative state” or a “minimally conscious state.” The pathologist did argue that Mrs. Schiavo was blind and that therapy would not have improved her mental state.
Of course, we will never know if that judgment is accurate or not, since her death by legally-inflicted dehydration ended any possibility of further treatment. The pathologist also ruled that Terri Schiavo died of “marked dehydration” rather than starvation.
In a news story released by The Washington Post, the reporter seemed to claim that Mrs. Schiavo had died back in 1990 when she suffered the injury. The lead paragraph of the article, posted on the newspaper’s Web site Wednesday afternoon, read like this: “Terri Schiavo died of the effects of a profound and prolonged lack of oxygen to her brain on a day in 1990, but what caused that event isn’t known and may never be, the physician who performed her autopsy said today.” When did Terri Schiavo die? The structure of this sentence would seem to suggest that she died back in 1990.
This is profoundly not the case. Terri Schiavo was not brain dead in 1990, and she was not brain dead until she died of court-ordered dehydration. She was not on a ventilator and she could even swallow. No medical authority attempted to classify her as brain dead during the course of the controversy. This is not just a quibble over language — it is a battle for the recognition of human dignity.
In a revised version of the article, posted to its print edition Web site for today, The Washington Post offers a much different lead: “Terri Schiavo suffered severe, irreversible brain damage that left that organ discolored and scarred, shriveled to half its normal size, and damaged in nearly all its regions, including the one responsible for vision, according to an autopsy report released yesterday.”
All this underlines once again the vast power of the media, especially in terms of framing a debate. The difference between dying in 1990 and dying in 2005 is huge, and the very definition of human life hangs in that balance.
SOURCES AND LINKS: David Brown and Shailagh Murray, Schiavo Autopsy Released, The Washington Post, Thursday, June 16, 2005. Other coverage from BBC News, Indianapolis Star, USA Today, ABC News, The New York Times.