Sunday, September 3, 2006

Among the Democratic Party leaders rallying around Ned Lamont against their former vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is a different kind of celebrity, Michael Schiavo — the former husband of the late Terri Schiavo. His indication to what he claimed were her wishes drove him to succeed finally in removing her feeding tube.

Mr. Schiavo pointedly reminded Connecticut voters that Mr. Lieberman has supported the president and congressional Republicans in passing emergency legislation involving federal courts in an attempt to save Terri Schiavo’s life while he, Michael Schiavo, was respecting her wishes which she could no longer communicate to die.

Connecticut voters were not informed that Democrats as well as Republicans were in favor of intervention by federal courts, including Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is deeply knowledgeable about disability rights.

Nor, of course, did Mr. Schiavo, while on the hustings, mention that when the feeding tube was removed, Terri Schiavo was not terminal, was breathing naturally on her own and, according to several of the neurologists who had examined her (others disagreed), was not in a persistent vegetative state. And not only her parents and siblings witnessed that though she could not speak, Terri was responsive.

I covered the Terri Schiavo case for more than four years, going against nearly all of the other media in emphasizing and documenting that this was not a “right to die” case, but a disability-rights case. And that’s why many leading disability-rights organizations filed legal briefs unreported by most of the press on her behalf.

Terri Schiavo was indeed brain-damaged, but her husband had stopped all testing and rehabilitation for her in 1993 (Terri died in March 2005). For years, Michael Schiavo while “devoted” to his wife’s wishes was living with another woman, with whom he had two children. (He has since married her.) As for what Terri Schiavo’s wishes were if the time came when she could not speak for herself in the winter 2005 issue of the University of Minnesota Law School’s “Constitutional Commentary,” Notre Dame Law School professor O. Carter Snead reports that, at a January 2000 trial, five witnesses testified on whether she would have declined artificial nutrition and hydration (water) in the state she was in.

Terri’s mother and a close friend of Terri said (as another friend has also confirmed) that Terri would have wanted these basic life needs. However, three witnesses assured the court that Terri would have approved the death her husband provided for her. These death messengers were Michael Schiavo, his brother and his sister-in-law (a family that sticks together).

It was on their testimony that Florida state judge George Greer ruled there was “clear and convincing evidence” of Terri’s wishes, thereby justifying the removal of the feeding tube. Dismayingly, 19 additional judges in six courts, including federal courts, based their terminal judgments on Terri Schiavo entirely on Judge Greer’s ruling. The courts erred fatally in not conducting an investigation of Greer’s entire handling of the case from the beginning. For another example, he ignored a number of charges of neglect by her guardian, Michael Schiavo.

When Terri Schiavo died, I wrote that hers was the longest public execution in American history. Even the most monstrous murderer on death row would have received far more due process of law than she did.

“As to legal concerns,” William Anderson a senior psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a lecturer at Harvard University wrote when she died: “a guardian may refuse any medical treatment, but drinking water is not such a procedure. It is not within the power of a guardian to withhold, and not in the power of a rational court to prohibit.” In “Constitutional Commentary,” professor Michael Paulsen of the University of Minnesota Law School warned: “This is the story of a judicially ordered killing of an innocent, disabled woman. It is the story of the failure of all branches of government… adequately to protect that particular life. It is an end-of-life story that is likely to be repeated, without high legal drama, in the lives of many of us.” Or, as Pat Anderson, former lawyer for Terri Schiavo’s parents, told me: “Euthanasia in America now has a name and a face.” Michael Schiavo will also be campaigning, The New York Times notes, for challengers against Sens. George Allen in Virginia and Jim Talent in Missouri, and will be helping congressional candidates in Florida and Pennsylvania. He is likely to tell his audiences as he has in a marker he placed on Terri’s grave that “I kept my promise” to his late former wife.

That is, if any reporters know enough to ask him about the case.

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