We at the IWF have no policy position on the “right to die.” If you write out an advance directive saying you would like to be hanged by your thumbs from a rafter should you become mentally incapacitated, we would take no stand on your decision, whatever our personal feelings might be.
That’s not why we got involved in the Terri Schiavo case. We got involved because we were outraged that Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, who had been living for at least 10 years with a woman he called his “fiancee” and by whom he’d had two children, became Terri’s court-appointed guardian and the only person involved in the case who asserted that Terri wanted to die, via removal of her feeding tube. We saw that as a clear conflict of interest. While it’s understandable why someone with an incapacitated spouse might want to take up with someone new, that person shouldn’t at the same time be pursuing a claim conveniently to kill off the incapacitated spouse. It struck us as especially discordant that Michael had waited until after he’d collected a $1.1 million malpractice settlement from Terri’s doctors in 1992, money that was supposed to pay for a lifetime of care for her, before went to court to assert her “right to die.”
Now, Joan Didion comes with an article, “The Case of Theresa Schiavo,” for the New York Review of Books. Based on Didion’s close, dispassionate reading of all the court documents in the lengthy Schiavo case, the article is bone-chilling–and it doesn’t exactly make Michael Schiavo out as the kind of fellow you’d like your daughter to marry.
Joan Didion is a fellow Californian, and during the 1960s and 1970s I loved her journalism and the clear, unblinking perspective she brought from the West onto the conventional pieties of the Northeast. Didion didn’t buy into radical chic when it was all the rage, nor into militant feminism when it was all the rage. Then, during the 1980s, Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved from Los Angeles to New York, and Didion began to get mesmerized by the preoccupations of leftist New York intellectuals. Her low point for me was her mid-1980s trip to El Salvador to schmooze with the Marxist guerillas and denounce the Reagan administration. That’s when I stopped reading Joan Didion. But this article on Terri Schiavo has made me high on Joan Didion again.
Here are some excerpts:
“She was repeatedly described as ’terminal.’ This…was inaccurate. She was ’terminal’ only in the sense that her husband had obtained a court order authorizing the removal of her feeding tube; her actual physical health was such that she managed to stay alive in a hospice, in which only palliative treatment is given and patients without antibiotics often die of the pneumonia that accompanies immobility or the bacteremia that accompanies urinary catheterization, for five years.
“Even after the removal of the feeding tube, she lived thirteen days. The removal of this feeding tube was repeatedly described as ’honoring her directive.’ This, again, was inaccurate: there was no directive. Any expressed wish in this matter existed only in the belated telling of her husband and two of his relatives (his brother Scott Schiavo and their sister-in-law Joan Schiavo), who testified in a hearing on a 1998 petition that they had heard Theresa express the thought that she would not wish her life to be artificially prolonged. One time she was said to have expressed this thought was when Michael and Scott Schiavo’s grandmother was on life support. ’If I ever go like that, just let me go,’ Scott Schiavo said that he had heard Theresa say. ’Don’t leave me there.’ Another expression of the thought, Joan Schiavo testified, occurred when the two women were watching a television movie about a man on a feeding tube: according to Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George J. Felos, what Theresa said was this: ’No tubes for me.’…
“Only in 1997, seven years after the cardiac arrest and a year before he first requested that the feeding tube be removed, did Michael Schiavo first mention these recalled wishes to the Schindlers. In 1992 he had pursued (and finally settled, for approximately $1.1 million after fees) a medical negligence suit against the doctors who had supervised Theresa Schiavo’s infertility treatment, arguing that they had failed to pick up the potassium imbalance. During the course of this 1992 malpractice action Michael Schiavo (who had not yet been videotaped in what seemed to be a legal office explaining that his wife had never wanted to ’live on tubes,’ never wanted ’to be a burden’ was asked how he saw their future:
“A: I see myself hopefully finishing school and taking care of my wife.
Q: Where do you want to take care of your wife?
A: I want to bring her home.
Q: If you had the resources available to you, if you had the equipment and the people, would you do that?
A: Yes. I would, in a heartbeat.
Q: How do you feel about being married to Terri now?
A: I feel wonderful. She’s my life and I wouldn’t trade her for the world. I believe in my marriage vows.
Q: You believe in your wedding vows, what do you mean by that?
A: I believe in the vows I took with my wife, through sickness, in health, for richer or poor. I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I’m going to do that….
“An insensitivity to the disposition of the absent wife’s most sentimental property would be cited, and it was: asked during a 1993 deposition what he had done with Theresa’s jewelry, Michael Schiavo, astonishingly, said this: ’Um, I think I took her engagement ring and her…what do they call it…diamond wedding band and made a ring for myself.’ Marital unhappiness would be alleged, and it was: Bobby Schindler, according to The New York Times, said that his sister had taken him into the bathroom of a restaurant one night and broken down in tears. ’She said her marriage was falling apart, but she didn’t have the guts to divorce him.’ A friend with whom Theresa worked at the Prudential, Jackie Rhodes, was reported by The Washington Post to have spoken to an unhappy Theresa on the day that preceded the 911 call. From the Post:
“The last time she spoke to Terri, Rhodes says, she had just gone to get her hair done. Terri was toying with going back to her natural color, so Rhodes called that Saturday to ask what she had decided. Terri, Rhodes said, was in tears; she and Michael had had a fight over the cost of the salon visit….
“In fact any notion about what Theresa Schiavo wanted or did not want remained essentially unconfirmable, notwithstanding the fact that a Florida court had in effect accepted the hearsay assertions that she had said, at one point, in reference to her husband’s dying grandmother and at another while watching a television movie about someone with a feeding tube, ’no tubes for me.’ (Imagine it. You are in your early twenties. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in which someone has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip bowl. ’No tubes for me,’ you say as you get up to fill it. What are the chances you have given this even a passing thought?)”
The problem with the Terri Schiavo case was Michael Schiavo. He was given $1.1 million, a sum that, properly annuitized, would have paid for a life-time of first-rate care for her. At some point soon afterwards, he, well, melted down Terri’s wedding ring and made a ring for himself. At that point, he was simply not in a position to say that what Terri actually wanted was to die. And, as Joan Didion has amply pointed out, we don’t know, and we’ll never know, exactly what she wanted.