National Disgrace

The coverage of the Terri Schiavo tragedy by the cable news channels was a national disgrace. They provided a national megaphone for fanatics to make wild and unsubstantiated — and, in some cases, previously discredited — allegations about Michael Schiavo and Florida Circuit Judge George Greer.

Their feverish greed for sensationalism caused them to disregard the truth.

One falsehood repeated by many people, including some who should have known better, was that Mrs. Schiavo’s wish not to be kept alive was decided on the basis of "hearsay." That is untrue.

The legal term "hearsay" refers to a situation in which Person A says that Person B told him what Person C said. That is hearsay and is not admissible in American courts. In the case of Mrs. Schiavo, three people testified as to what she said directly to them at a luncheon following a funeral for an elderly relative. Presumably, the opposing party could not produce any evidence to refute that, because Judge Greer’s decision was upheld repeatedly throughout the state and federal court systems.

You should also note that Schiavo and his in-laws, Bob and Mary Schindler, had a falling out not over the fate of Terri Schiavo, but over money. A malpractice suit resulted in an award of about $700,000, which went into a trust fund administered by the court for the medical expenses, plus $300,000 to Michael for what the law refers to as loss of consortium. The Schindlers apparently expected him to split that $300,000 with them, and when he refused, there was a terrible, vitriolic shouting match. Prior to that, Schiavo and his in-laws had been close and had worked hand in hand trying to rehabilitate Terri.

Michael Schiavo had been told from the beginning by neurologists that Terri’s condition was hopeless, but for a number of years he stubbornly refused to believe it. He was so persistent and insistent that Terri Schiavo get the very best of care that he was described as "a nursing-home manager’s worst nightmare." A man who didn’t care for his wife would not have done that. When he finally accepted the grim truth, he went to court, and the Schindlers opposed him.

The fact is that if this family dispute had not been seized upon by national organizations with political agendas that used this poor woman as a fundraising tool, you would never have heard of it. Families have to make these kinds of terrible decisions every day in this country. Occasionally, they don’t agree. In those cases, the standard procedure is to have the question settled by a judge. That was done in this case, and based on sworn testimony by people subject to cross-examination, Judge Greer decided that (1) her medical condition was hopeless, and (2) her wishes were not to be kept alive by artificial means. There is no justifiable doubt on either point, despite what rabble-rousers, quacks and people with grudges have blurted out on television.

It was shameful for the Florida governor, the Florida legislature, the U.S. Congress and President Bush to involve themselves in this private family matter. The courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, have properly squelched their attempts. It was shameful for those fanatics to show up in Pinellas Park and disturb the dying in the hospice with strident shouts and irrational claims. Fortunately, those ugly faces, angry and threatening, do not reflect Christianity. National polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including those who describe themselves as evangelicals, support the decision to remove the feeding tube and disapprove of the political intervention.

We are our brains. The rest of our body exists to carry the brain and to obey its instructions. When the brain dies, we die, even though the rest of the body can continue to function on automatic, provided the primitive part of the brainstem still functions. Terri Schiavo, the person, died a long time ago.

People should be encouraged that the rule of law has survived an onslaught by a mob of fanatics, a gaggle of opportunistic politicians and a swarm of television vultures.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969 to 1971, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.