I've occasionally resurrected old articles and columns I have written in the past. This week is the 9th anniversary of the intentional starving of Terri Schiavo, who was said by the media to have been "in a vegetative state", and said by her husband to "have wanted to die." The media ignored signs that her injury may have been the result of a failed murder attempt by her husband, and also ignored medical signs that Terri was, in fact, able to respond to the world around her. This column was printed in The Front Range Rampart in 2005.
People enjoy movies about the best of human nature, and the human spirit. And, invariably, the movies we find most compelling are stories about survival in the face of great odds.
When have we ever seen movies where responders to the scene of a bad accident exhort the victims, “Just give up! You’re not going to want to live like this.”? No! They say, “Come on! Hang in there! You can make it!”
We are uplifted by movies about the piano player or football star who’s lost his limbs, yet finds the will to live a productive life. Life’s not all about “quality of life.”
Ask Joni Earickson Tada, a quadriplegic who ably guides a paintbrush with her teeth and gives inspirational speeches to audiences around the world. She said, “I didn’t think I wanted to live like that, either.” But now she does. Injuries can change your whole life, but the human will to live can overcome despair. She redefined her “quality of life” and found her own life abundant in quality even in spite of her handicaps.
So how did our society so lightly begin making decisions for Terri Schiavo, whose supposed desire to die became accepted as Gospel by the courts and media on the basis of hearsay her long estranged husband first voiced many years after her debilitating injury?
Some of those movies about the human will to live are scary. Many stories over the years have frightened us with the thought of being hurt but alive – but without any way to let someone else know. In plenty of these stories, the human spirit perseveres and finds rescue. But not in all.
Terri exhibited convincing signs of consciousness and emotion, and could communicate in simple ways. All of this the media ignored. Some of us knew, but the world as a whole – the people Terri was counting on – did not hear her cry.
Terri Schiavo was the poster-child for disabled rights in this country, and we killed her.
How much further from here to a society where we “euthanize” the disabled to put them out of their misery? Or the elderly?
More stories – often sci-fi tales like Star Trek or The Time Machine – warn of the horror of a society that sacrifices the weak for the benefit of the society as a whole. Lebensraum.
America needs to step back from the brink on this dangerous subject. We need to embrace free will and individual rights in these cases, not allow the government to become the arbiter of life and death, coldly judging to favor the “best interests” of the broader community.
Terri, whose life was judged irrelevant and worthless to society by the “wisdom” of American courts, may well turn out to be one of the most important and relevant lives lived during our age. It is our duty to be compelled by her story, and her struggle for life. We must learn from this, and we must act.