Sunday, April 17, 2005

During the intense national debate about the worth of Terri Schiavo’s life, a majority of Americans agreed with her husband that they would not want to continue living. But when the pollsters called, did they describe the actual facts of her condition to get the responses that created and confused the national response?

One of the most widely circulated telephone polls was the ABC News poll. Its interviewers told those who picked up the phone: “Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 16 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness, and her condition is irreversible.” Although Terri was brain-damaged, she was not on a respirator or any other machinery. She was breathing naturally and was fed three times a day through a feeding tube. This was not “life support,” as most of us interpret that term.

Furthermore, a considerable number of neurologists claimed that she was conscious and responsive in ways that were more than just reflexes. They and a number of radiologists also noted that her condition was not irreversible and might be improved through new and advanced methods of therapy (which her husband had denied her for years).

Other pollsters flatly said in their calls that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state, but that, too, was denied by dissenting neurologists whose affidavits are also part of the court record. The definition of PVS in Florida Statute 765.101 is: “The absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior of any kind, and an inability to communicate or interact purposefully” with other people.

I have statements from people who spent time with Terri during her final weeks, and they describe decidedly meaningful and purposeful interaction with her environment.

But with these inaccurately worded polls creating a grave misconception of her condition around the nation and worldwide, it was inevitable that, as one person in Detroit told a BBC interviewer: “There’s too much talk about life, and not about the quality of life.” Those who support euthanasia, or “merciful pulling of the plug,” believe that certain people’s “quality of life” does not warrant their staying alive.

These are compassionate Americans, who, this time, have been misled by the polls and the media’s careless, lazy reporting on the Terri Schiavo case.

In the March 24 Newsday, before Terri died, Cathy Cleaver Ruse, of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, accurately and bluntly revealed the inexcusable incompetence of the pollsters: “The (ABC News) poll also says the family disagreement is whether she would have wanted to ‘be kept alive.’ But Schiavo is not dying or wasn’t, while she was being fed. So the question isn’t whether she should be ‘kept alive’ or ‘allowed to die,’ but whether to stop feeding her, in which case she will die.” And so she did.

And how many Americans knew from the polls that her husband who provided hearsay “evidence” of her wishes, corroborated only by his brother and sister-in-law, has for years been living with another woman, with whom he has fathered two other children? The polls, which so confused so many millions about Terri Schiavo’s actual quality of life and her further potential, are by no means the only polls that have misinformed Americans on a wide range of vital public issues.

It is long past time for newspaper, cable and network operations and wire services that mechanically circulate alleged public-opinion polls to do more than continue to be accomplices to misinformation. Whenever a poll is printed or reported, the results should be preceded by the full contexts of the questions asked of those responding.

The ABC News poll, for example, led to this penetrating response by a valuable blogger, Ed Morrissey ( “Since when does ABC conduct push-polling for euthanasia?” The polls also assured us that a great majority of Americans objected to congressional involvement in Terri’s case through the federal courts. How many Americans knew that the very liberal Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, supported bringing in federal courts, because, he said: “State courts vary in their evidentiary proceedings and in their process 50 different ones. Iowa differs from Florida or Missouri. So sometimes a person might get caught in a certain evidentiary proceeding, in a state court, that does not really tell the whole story.”

That is exactly what happened to Terri Schiavo because the entire “process” that led to her cruel death was based on the fatally wrong ruling of one state judge, George Greer. He ruled that Terri’s “wishes” as told by her husband, with all of his conflicts of interest, were “clear and convincing evidence,” while he ignored a precisely contrary account, sworn before him by a close friend of Terri. A federal court review which, while Terri was alive, was denied all the way up to the Supreme Court was badly needed to assess Terri’s “wishes” and for many other reasons.

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