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Sunday, March 20, 2005

When everyone's on the jury.

Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy (an occasional UU World contributor) takes a look at the Terri Schiavo case and common-sensically concludes that Michael Schiavo is telling the truth about his wife's wishes — but also that video clips of her are "absolutely convincing that she is semi-aware, semi-responsive, and able to understand people in some dim way." Therefore, he wonders, why hasn't a judge in her case simply gone down to her bedside and asked her about her wishes? Couldn't she just blink or grimace a response?

Rivka (a clinical psychologist who won a UU Blog Award for Respectful of Otters) offers a lengthy, medically informed opinion and takes up the key issue that swayed Kennedy:

The key to the 4 minutes and 20 seconds of video is that Schiavo seems to be responding in a meaningful way to specific stimuli. All 17 experts who reference the videos take for granted that they demonstrate meaningful emotional or communicative responses. Could they really all be wrong?

Oh, yes. All you need to know to illuminate the question is that the six snippets of video were selected from 4 1/2 hours of tape. As do most people with PVS, Schiavo emits random behaviors and noises. If a person gives enough commands or makes enough interaction attempts over the course of several hours, by sheer coincidence some of Schiavo's random behaviors will appear to coincide with their commands. Both the trial court and the appeals court viewed the entire 4 1/2 hour tape, and both concluded that her responses were indeed random.

The issue that all 17 experts skirt, Rivka explains, is that "Terri Schiavo's cerebral cortex is not damaged, it is absent." She concludes:

Terri Schiavo's case is tragic, but not medically complicated. Nothing about it suggests any room for diversity of medical or neuropsychological opinion. The "experts" who submitted affidavits appear to know little about her case beyond what they were able to glean from cherry-picked videotape segments only a few minutes in length. They recommend sophisticated neuroimaging techniques which are not relevant to the question of the feasibility of rehabilitation when the cerebral cortex is gone.

Schiavo's story is complex and tragic and clearly an ongoing nightmare for everyone in her family — imagine spending a decade in court arguing about whether your child or spouse would want to persist in a condition from which she can never recover — but a piece of the tragedy is that we have all become a sort of ad hoc jury, everyone offering an opinion about a tiny piece of the evidence. Happily, I don't have to decide in Schiavo's case, but the political and ethical issues her case has brought to a boil do need to be decided. One essay I've found provocative and helpful is Garret Keizer's February 2005 Harper's essay, "Life Everlasting: The Religious Right and the Right to Die."

Update 3.23.05: Another must-read Unitarian Universalist commentary on the Schiavo case comes from Doug Muder at Pericles: "Affirming Life: A Personal Story."

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 20 March 2005 at 8:59 AM

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March 21, 2005 12:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bioethicist Hilzoy writes at Obsidian Wings:

Under current law, when a person is incompetent to consent to or refuse treatment, evidence of that person's views and wishes is used to determine whether or not s/he would have consented to treatment. In Terri Schiavo's case, the courts have determined that she would not have consented. In accordance with what they have found to be her wishes, they are seeking to discontinue the treatment to which she would not have consented. That is: legally, this is a matter of letting her views about her life and her body govern the treatment she is subjected to, not a matter of anyone else's deciding whether she will live or die. What's at issue in this case is not "life"; it's patient autonomy.

(Via Respectful of Otters.)


March 22, 2005 10:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Boston Globe answers some frequently asked questions about persistent vegetative states and the chances for recovery.

Rivka notes an especially disturbing suggestion in arguments made by Schiavo's parents' lawyers:

The Schindler family is arguing that, regardless of what has been determined in court about Terri Schiavo's actual wishes, the courts should be required to place a higher weight on what the Catholic Church wants her to have wished. If the Appellate Court agrees with them, it sets up an enormously disturbing precedent in which religious doctrine is presumed to trump individual conscience.

Oh what fun.


March 23, 2005 09:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

Make sure to read UU Doug Muder's essay, "Affirming Life: A Personal Story."


March 23, 2005 01:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

Another good response, this time from Noli Irritare Leones, a member of the Progressive Christian Blogger Network.

Stephen A.:

March 27, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

If the default position when someone's wishes aren't spelled out in a living will is always "death," then this entire event should be a very chilling episode for anyone who cares about the welfare of the severely disabled or serverely mentally handicapped.

The TV debate over this issue has focused on those "wacky Fundies" who are advocating for life in all instances. It's hard to argue that all people have worth and life should be treasured and held onto, but that's just what liberal Christians are doing.

Those rather poorly-worded polls may be slapping the GOP around right now and may give some comfort, but once the question is framed as life vs. death as a default position, those numbers will NOT be the same.


March 28, 2005 12:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

One wonders sometimes,in moments of exasperation , if life is still precious.

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