The Schiavo Autopsy and WMDs

The results of the Terri Schiavo autopsy were a shock. The medical examiner reported that her brain was only minimally injured in the regions of the organ that control consciousness, and that with proper therapy Terri could have conceivably regained the ability to communicate, even speak. Evidently she was not in a “persistent vegetative state”: Her parents, their consulting experts and GOP Senator Bill Frist were correct that she was reacting to visual stimuli. Worst of all, the autopsy revealed that Terri’s condition had been aggravated and perhaps even precipitated by abuse.

The revelations caused a sensation. Terri’s parents and conservative politicians and commentators demanded new legislation, and prosecutors began considering the possibility of an indictment for Michael Schiavo. The case seemed to be a tipping point for public attitudes about the withholding of nourishment and even more intrusive medical means. Almost overnight, America began questioning the wisdom of allowing a patient to die, under any circumstances. Meanwhile, a new wave of support washed over Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Frist, and even beleaguered Congressman Tom DeLay. They had been right all along. The social liberals, secular humanists and pro-abortion advocates had helped Michael Schiavo murder his wife. They were wrong, and had no choice, in light of the indisputable evidence, to admit it.

But of course, this isn’t what the autopsy showed. Terri had been in a persistent vegetative state. Her brain had shrunk to half its normal size; there would have been no recovery. She couldn’t see, and wasn’t consciously aware of her surroundings: all those who detected comprehension from Terri were engaging in wishful thinking at best. And there was no evidence of abuse.

Nevertheless, indications are that the ideological warriors for the preservation of Terri Schiavo’s life do not intend to budge from their position. Terri was undeniably alive, they point out, and who is entitled to declare that human life, no matter how limited or damaged, should be ended by a court order? No one, they say.

And that’s okay. Those who opposed the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube have no obligation to abandon all of their convictions based on one autopsy. Indeed, the autopsy changes nothing as far as some of the arguments are concerned:

  • President Bush’s position that whenever a life is ordered terminated by court order there should be a requirement of review by a Federal Court is as legitimate (or misguided) as ever
  • Those who feel that Terri was illegitimately taken off of life support based on inadequate testing and hearsay evidence of her wishes should not abandon that position simply because the “inadequate testing” happened to come up with the correct diagnosis. The Amazing Kreskin could have lucked into the correct diagnosis via telepathy too, but that wouldn’t have made his methods more appropriate. And we still don’t really know if Terri Schiavo expressed the desire not to live in a persistent vegetative state. Indeed, we’ll never know.
  • The absolute position held by many of the Schindlers’ (Terri’s parents) supporters is that a human being’s life should never be terminated under any conditions is not affected by the autopsy results at all.

In some respects, Terri’s autopsy results mirror the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Those who take an absolute position on an issue usually need to find additional persuasive arguments to convince others not holding the absolute position that a policy or course of action is warranted and justifiable. In the case of the invasion of Iraq, Bush administration officials felt that Saddam Hussein’s decades-long violation of the terms of the Desert Storm cease-fire terms as well as a series U.N. resolutions justified removing him by force. The intelligence indicating that Iraq had WMD’s lended additional support to their policy and was useful for building public support, but the fact that it turned out to be wrong doesn’t, and shouldn’t alter the legitimacy of the original, primary rationale for those who held it. Similarly, arguments that Schiavo was really more aware than her husband’s doctors were asserting, if made in good faith, were a necessary tool in building public support for a course of action (keeping her alive) that many activist believe was the right one whether she was in a persistent vegetative state or not.

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, was quoted by AP as saying that the autopsy as “a dagger into the heart” of the campaign to keep Schiavo alive. He is mistaken. The autopsy results don’t prove that these activists’ position was “wrong” any more than the failure to find WMD’s proves that it was “wrong” to invade Iraq. The judgement of whether an action is ethically right or wrong must be made on the basis of the information that exists at the time of the decision, and the process by which the decision to act is made. Subsequent developments can show that a decision was based on incorrect assumptions or data, but they will not prove that it was “wrong.” Media pundits and those on the other side should stop insisting that the opponents of Schiavo’s fate make a declaration that their cause was misguided.

It would help, of course, if the Schindler’s lawyer, David Gibbs III, stopped spouting nonsensical analogies, like his repeated statement that “you can’t legally kill a dog in this country, why is it permissible to kill a disabled woman?” Some pet owners should explain to Gibbs that dogs with far less debilitating maladies than those suffered by Terri Schiavo, not to mention far higher cognitive capabilities, are euthanized routinely (and legally) in America as a matter of compassion and mercy. One should be able oppose how Schiavo’s case was handled without resorting to such completely inane arguments as this. But Gibbs is a lawyer. The Scoreboard strongly suspects that he does not personally hold the same beliefs as his clients. As a lawyer, he doesn’t have to, but he doesn’t help his clients by turning their position into gibberish.

And Michael Schiavo, who was accused of being a murderer, a money-grubber, a wife-abuser and a scheming adulterer is owed an apology by everyone from his in-laws to Governor Bush. The personal attacks on Terri’s husband’s motives and character were always unfounded, outrageous and unfair, and the autopsy results only confirmed that. Advocates for preserving human life at all levels have no obligation to abandon their principles in light of the medical examiner’s findings, but they always had an obligation to respect and not savage others who disagreed with them. At that ethical obligation, they failed miserably.


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