Michael Schiavo and the Million Dollar Insult

In a scenario right out of a bad Monday afternoon movie on Lifetime, San Diego businessman Robert Herring offered Terri Schiavo’s husband one million dollars if he would transfer his rights as his wife’s guardian to her parents, thus ending his legal efforts to have her feeding tube removed. Schiavo refused the offer, which his lawyer termed "insulting." There are ethical issues here, to be sure. But what are they?

The Ethics Scoreboard has avoided wading into the Terri Schiavo controversy because the ethical issues are too muddy, and perhaps too deep. Is removing the severely brain damaged woman’s feeding tube euthanasia, as many claim, or is it merely removing the illusion of human existence from a woman whose vegetative state makes a mockery of the word "life?" By some medical definitions, Terri Schiavo is already dead, unable to sense, understand or communicate with the world around her. Her husband says that he knows his wife would have never wanted to continue in such a state, her face frozen in a mysterious half smile, her body contorted, her pathetic condition photographed and publicized far and wide. Her parents claim they detect signs of comprehension from their daughter, and that her condition might improve with therapy and treatment. Most medical experts agree that Terri’s parents are in deep denial, and are inferring conscious brain activity where there is none. But nobody knows for certain. To make an ethical judgement here requires a comprehensive definition of human life, and that is a mystery that only seems to become more difficult to solve with each passing year.

But there has been a more straightforward ethical controversy connected to the Terri Schiavo tragedy: the motives of Michael Schiavo. She had received monetary damages in a malpractice lawsuit relating to an untreated condition that led to her heart attack, and the amount was based on a presumption that she would require long-term hospitalization and care. Her husband’s subsequent efforts to remove her feeding tube (based on his claims that this was her expressed wish) caused her parents and their supporters to question whether his real aim was to inherit the remainder of the money before it was exhausted on Terri’s medical bills. (Though some plaintiff’s attorneys would doubtless disagree, it also would have been unethical for Schiavo to ask for lifetime medical care in the lawsuit if he planned to have his wife’s feeding tube removed.) The implication of venality has cast Michael Schiavo as the villain in this drama, with the Schindlers, Terri’s parents, being perceived as both long-suffering and selfless.

It is fair to say that Michael Schiavo’s unequivocal rejection of Herring’s offer should put an end to the suspicion that he’s "trying to kill Terri for the money". If that were the case, accepting Herring’s check would be a perfect solution: Michael would get what he wanted all along, and Terri’s parents would get to prolong what they see as their daughter’s life. Now even the most ardent foe of Michael’s efforts should have to admit that while he may be wrong, he is sincere.

No, the unethical one here is Herring, not Schiavo. It is an unfortunate feature of human nature that most people have a price at which they will abandon or violate even deeply held principles….not all of them, perhaps, but many of them. Herring was using the power of money to see how much Schiavo really believed in his cause. Attempting to pry an individual’s principles loose with large sums of money is actually an attempt at corruption, and all the good intentions in the world don’t alter that fact. Herring, like many wealthy people and too many Americans in general, believes that money is the solution for every problem, even a problem as complex as the battle over Terri Schiavo, a problem that is inseparable from the love of a husband for a wife, parents for a child, imponderables of life, death, and the limits of human influence over either.

We should be thankful that Michael Schiavo had the courage and the character to prove Herring wrong. The Terri Schiavo dilemma raises issues that need to be addressed by knowledge, reason, and analysis, not by a checkbook.


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