WE LIVE in a divided country during a divisive moment in our history. So itís hardly surprising that we cannot agree on the meaning of Terri Schiavoís life and death. Whatís distressing, though, is that we canít even agree on the underlying facts. It would be one thing to disagree over whether to end life support for someone whoís been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, as by all credible accounts is the case with Schiavo. Then the debate would be over morality and the value of life ó areas where we might at least be able to understand each other, if not necessarily find common ground.
Instead, the disagreements are more elemental than that. People such as Hammesfahr and Barbara Weller, a lawyer for Terri Schiavoís parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, who says that Terri has expressed to her the desire to stay alive, contradict voluminous amounts of credible evidence to the contrary. According to virtually every neurologist who has examined Terri Schiavo, she has no awareness of her surroundings, and those evocative videos taped a few years ago show nothing more than the automatic reflexes of her brain stem. Tests reveal that most of the thinking parts of her brain are actually gone, replaced by spinal fluid. Yet that doesnít stop the Schindlersí supporters from saying otherwise, thus polluting the debate with claims that almost certainly canít be true. Add to this the political gamesmanship of radical anti-abortion-rights activist Randall Terry, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Florida governor Jeb Bush, and, of course, President Bush himself, and ó suddenly ó the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and you have a formula guaranteed to render the media dazed and confused.
"The press should not simply be a gatherer of information thatís put forth as if itís all equally valuable," says Ellen Ruppel Schell, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University and co-director of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism. Schell draws an analogy to media coverage of global warming: even though the overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is real and that human activity is an important cause, she says, too many news organizations continue to give equal time to a handful of contrarians, some of them in the pay of the oil industry. "That is an artificial balancing of a story," she says. "The difficulty, I think, is that the press is scared to do its own analysis, and that theyíll come under criticism if they do."
And, of course, it can be difficult for the public to parse the truth if the media decline to help. When the latest chapter in the Schiavo epic began to unfold a few weeks ago, I was at first persuaded by Wellerís description of Terri Schiavoís violent reaction to being told she would die, and by Senator Frist, a physician who said the videos posted on the Schindlerís Web site, TerrisFight.org, suggested that Schiavo may be conscious. At the very least, I wrote, Judge Greer ought to visit the hospice and see for himself (see "Media Log," BostonPhoenix.com, starting on March 19). It was only later that I learned Weller had made completely over-the-top assertions about Schiavoís responsiveness ("active, curious, and purposeful") in pro-life outlets such as LifeNews.com, and that Frist had been relying in part on the dubious testimony of William Hammesfahr.
You could argue that I should have known more before I started blogging on this subject. But I was struck by how simple it was to ascertain the truth once I started looking in the right places ó and thinking logically about what was happening. To believe the likes of Hammesfahr, Weller, and Frist is to believe in the monstrous conspiracy of a homicidal husband, a heartless judge, and a judiciary and a medical system that value death over life. How is this possible? How could a person like George Greer ó himself a conservative Christian who attends a Southern Baptist church ó take part in such a horror?
The logical answer, of course, is that he couldnít, and hasnít, and that this entire story is being driven by people who have placed their agendas ahead of anyone elseís interests ó including those of Terri Schiavo, Michael Schiavo, and the long-suffering Schindler family.
FORTUNATELY, despite the best efforts of Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, and their ilk, the public has seen through this better than might be expected. For instance, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week, 52 percent agreed with the federal judiciary for refusing to order Terri Schiavoís feeding tube reattached, while 39 percent disagreed. By large margins, respondents disapproved of the way President Bush and members of Congress from both parties have handled the issue. No doubt the public is responding to the massive hypocrisy that has come to light in recent days, including the revelation that Tom DeLayís family in 1988 decided to end life support for DeLayís father, and a Texas law, signed by George W. Bush when he was governor, to end life support in some situations even over the familyís objections. That law was recently invoked to pull an infant off a respirator against his motherís wishes because he had thanataphoric dysplasia, a form of dwarfism that is fatal in infancy.
And then there is the simple fact that people are a lot more familiar with such tragic dilemmas than politicians and pro-life activists realize. In Sundayís New York Times, Lachlan Forrow, a physician who runs the ethics program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, was quoted as saying that he deals with 50 to 100 end-of-life conflicts every year. Thatís one hospital in one city. Obviously, whatís happening with Terri Schiavo is something that happens every day, touching thousands of families every year. Most of those families are not going to be swayed by phony arguments amplified by a media culture more interested in booking provocative guests than in sorting out the truth.
"Oddly enough, this was not one that was discovered by the press," says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvardís Kennedy School. "I think this is one where the Bush administration did everything it could to whip this into hysteria. It backfired. The whole thing is excruciatingly painful for everybody."
But if the quest for political advantage backfired, the mediaís willingness to give a voice to the most extreme and irresponsible elements behind that quest is something that Michael Schiavo is going to have to live with (if heís lucky) for years to come.
On March 21, the same night that Sean Hannity and William Hammesfahr were all but calling him a murderer, Michael Schiavo appeared on CNNís Larry King Live. "Larry, sheís lived like this for 15 years," he said. "We have been in court for seven years. This is what Terri wanted, and this is what itís been found that Terri wanted. Just because you believe that things should err on the side of life because thatís what you believe in, what about Terri? What about Terri Schiavo? What did she believe in? Donít take that away from her."
Michael Schiavoís words were, as best as the courts or anyone else has been able to determine, the truth. And the truth has set his wife free. But it has made him a prisoner in his own country, despised by the zealots, potentially at risk wherever he goes.
In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the leader of Iran, declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, which was said to be an insult to Islam. Today, 16 years later, the fatwa remains in place. A bounty of some $2.8 million will be paid to any Muslim who manages to kill Rushdie, provided he can figure out how to escape to Iran so that he can claim his reward. Such is the price Rushdie has paid for his dedication to the truth as he sees it.
The Bushes, Frist, DeLay, et al. may have backed off from their fatwa. But the religious hatred they unloosed has not been contained. For every Richard Alan Meywes who is arrested, how many more are out there? William Hammesfahr and Barbara Weller say they speak for Terri Schiavo. Who speaks for Michael Schiavo? When will the fatwa against him be lifted?
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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