A fatal romantic triangle?

by Sharon Mahler
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It was a classic romantic triangle. A few short years after their marriage, his beautiful young wife became handicapped, and suddenly she was no longer able to satisfy him, or indeed contribute much of anything to their marriage. She had simply become a burden. Then he met someone else. Before long she was pregnant with his child. He could have simply divorced his wife, but there was the little matter of a substantial sum of money in her name. If they divorced he'd get nothing; if she were to die, he'd inherit it all. And so he hatched a plot to kill her ...

You've probably seen that plot line a hundred times in mystery novels and TV shows. But this story includes a plot twist that you would surely reject as ridiculous and unbelievable if you saw it on a TV show: The authorities not only knew that he was trying to kill his wife, but a court ruled that he had the legal right to do it, and two higher courts refused to hear appeals. Then major civil rights groups across the nation issued press releases defending the husband's right to kill his inconvenient wife.

Sound crazy? Maybe it is. But let's look at the facts:

Thirteen years ago Terri Schiavo was taken to a hospital where she was diagnosed with severe brain damage. Her husband said she had collapsed. What caused it has never been clear. There were some indications of violence but they were inconclusive. She may simply have had an unexplained seizure.

Terri was left unable to speak, though she is clearly conscious, and doctors, friends, and family say she is apparently aware of her surroundings, showing obvious response when people enter her room or speak to her. She is unable to take care of herself, including not being able to feed herself. So the hospital inserted a feeding tube down her throat. She does not require any other medical equipment to survive.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, eventually sued the doctors for malpractice in her case. He was awarded about $1.3 million for her medical care, plus $600,000 to compensate him for loss of her companionship. But apparently very little of the money was actually spent on caring for Terri. He had her put in a nursing home, and within a few months had ordered them not to treat her for a potentially life-threatening infection. He ordered that no rehabilitation be attempted which might enable her to eat normally, without the feeding tube. He wouldn't even allow a dentist to clean her teeth. When her parents challenged this in court and tried to get him to use the money for some serious medical treatment, he did finally start using the money ... for legal expenses to defend his right to withhold treatment from her. While he is keeping the details of the fund private, court records show that he has spent at least $400,000 of it on legal bills.

Since placing her in the nursing home, her husband became involved with another woman. While they are not married as he is still legally married to Terri, they are living together and have a baby.

A few months ago he asked the court to have the feeding tube removed so that she would starve to death. The court agreed. It ordered her parents not to provide her with any further medical or rehabilitative care without the husband's permission.

The parents begged her husband to divorce her and move on with his life if he wanted, just to let them take care of her. They even offerred to give him pretty much all the money they had, a few hundred thousand dollars in a retirement fund. He refused. A nurse testified in court that he frequently asked, "Is that b---- dead yet?"

Terri's husband says that she is in a "vegetative state". His lawyer described her as "like a houseplant". But her parents made public a videotape that shows her attempting to sit up in bed when her mother called her name. Later, she is asked to say the word "mom" and can be heard to struggle to make sounds with her mouth. The videotape, by the way, is illegal: the judge ordered her parents not to take any pictures of her. When her husband learned of the tape, he had his lawyer write a letter to the judge saying he would seek to have her parents barred from seeing her again if they took any more pictures.

Michael says Terri once mentioned she never wanted to live hooked up to machines. The governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, argued that even if she really said this, there is a big difference between saying "I wouldn't want to live like that" and "I would rather die." Doctors have testified that there is a good chance that, with proper therapy, she could learn to eat without the feeding tube again. Her husband and the court won't allow it to even be attempted.

The lawyer recently told a radio talk show host that her death by starvation will be peaceful and painless. If he really believes this, one can only conclude that he has never missed a meal in his life.

Wesley Smith, a bioethicist and author (including a book on euthanasia, Forced Exit), says the decision denies Terri's most basic rights. "We're talking about a woman who is not terminally ill, who's not hooked up to machines, who is going to live a normal lifespan unless her food and water is taken away," Smith said. He described the effects of death by starvation: "People can go into seizures. Their lips can crack. They can vomit. The hands mottle and turn cold, because all the water goes in towards the heart."

According to Burke Balch, the director of medical ethics at National Right to Life, Terri's case is not unique, it's just received more publicity than most. "For about two decades, the law in virtually every state has decreed that 'surrogates'" may authorize denial of treatment to those who cannot speak for themselves," he said. "Consequently, vulnerable people with impaired consciousness have routinely been denied life-saving treatment, food and fluids until they die." And, "Perhaps not until the publicity about this case have large numbers of Americans recognized how deep and widespread is the commitment to the "quality of life" ethic among doctors, hospitals, and the courts," Balch added.

Okay, I'll admit that I don't know that the husband is trying to kill his wife just so he can be rid of her, get her money, and marry his new girlfriend. He's certainly not publicly saying that that is his motive. I don't claim to have any evidence other than the facts of the case that I've outlined above. Hey, call me cynical, but I'm suspicious.

Right now Terri's case is going through seemingly endless legal battles. At the request of her husband and under court order, her feeding tube was taken away. But a few days later the state legislature passed an emergency law giving the governor power to intervene, which he promptly did. The husband is now challenging this law in court. He told the hospital that if they obeyed the governor's order and replaced the feeding tube he would sue them, but they apparently complied anyway. We'll see what happens.

Terri's parents have created a web site describing their daughter's situation, www.terrisfight.org.

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Posted 17 Oct 2003. Updated 8 Nov 2003.

Copyright 2003 by Pregnant Pause
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