March 28, 2005, 4:30 P.M.
You May Just Have To Be a Parent to Understand: This weekend my 10 year old daughter asked me why Terri Schiavo’s parents would not let her die even though they knew she was not going to get better. I think that my answer was one that you really have to be a parent to understand.
My wife and I know one another’s feelings about living on life support, and we have expressed our wishes in advanced directives. Even though, or perhaps because, she has been the best part of my life for over 20 years, I would, if I had to, honor her wishes and I am secure in the knowledge that she would honor mine. I am also certain that this topic has come up with all couples at one time or another, and that in any long term relationship there are bound to be "what if" discussions.
In the case of Terri Schiavo there has been ample evidence presented at numerous court proceedings that supports Michael Schiavo’s assertion that he, too, spoke with his wife about this issue and that she was clear with him about her wishes. Terri apparently also let her feelings be known among her friends: she did not want her life artificially prolonged.
It is different for a parent, however. When you take away the politics, the religion, money, the media and the family acrimony, there is only love left. The Schindlers simply cannot imagine the loss of their daughter. Right now they can visit her and they can see and touch her and while they can do that they can still have hope that she will miraculously recover despite the reality of her condition. Once she is gone they will have only memories shrouded in hatred for her husband. They will continue to hate Michael because of his ability to move beyond the loss of his beloved wife and because his actions in enforcing Terri’s wishes will take their daughter from them.
This is the part that I had trouble explaining to my daughter. The part about how much parents love their children, or at least how much I love mine, and how much the Schindlers apparently love theirs. You may just have to be a parent to understand.
I’m not certain that I could be any less strident in the defense of my child than the Schindlers, but I believe that I could honor their wishes. Advance directives are really not about the sick, injured or dying relative, they are all about letting the survivors know how you feel and how you want to be treated when you can no longer make decisions for yourself. I cannot help but encourage everyone to fill out a Living Will and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care so that your wishes are clear now, and so that there are no questions or family strife later.
Of course the idea of stripping off the politics, religion, money, publicity and years of family strife in order to look at the Schiavo case is unrealistic. It is no longer a possibility because, rather than Terri’s life being defined by the memories of her life, it is now defined by the politics of her death. Politicians have tried to use Terri’s case to garner support among fundamentalist Christians and so called right to life conservatives. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has even gone so far as to diagnose Ms. Schiavo, long distance, in order to justify his attempts to involve the US Congress in this debate. Tom Delay, who himself supported his families decision to take his ailing father off of life support several years ago, now apparently sees things differently. All that these people, politician, zealots and the media, have succeeded in doing is denying Terri Schiavo of any shred of dignity or respect in death.
I saw a photo over the weekend in which a protestor was holding a sign asking Barbara Bush what she thinks of her boys now. My first thought was that she probably loves them very much, and that she is proud of them and that she loves them even when she does not agree with them, just like most parents. It is ironic that this woman’s death, after exhaustive legislative and legal efforts to keep her alive, will be a political turning point, separating the far right from the rest of us, including the president and his brother.
Despite the unjustified political heat he will take, Florida Governor Jeb Bush has said that he is powerless, in the face of the law, to do anything else for the Schindler family. He recognizes that this country is founded in the rule of law. The issues pressed in Terri’s case are state law issues. They are not issues of federal law and attempts to create a body of law to deal with this case are nothing but poor politics. There have been numerous trials, hearings and appeals and the result of each one has been a reaffirmation of Michael Schiavo’s assertion that his wife did not wish for her life to be artificially prolonged.
When all is said and done, we live by the rule of law. The system has worked and, as hard as it may be for a parent to accept, the rule of law must prevail. I cannot assign fault or blame to either Michael Schiavo or to the Schindlers. I can only have compassion and a degree of sadness over the fact that forces put in place by Terri’s condition have taken this debate out of the privacy of their homes and onto a broad stage for all of us to witness. To put my family through the loss of privacy, dignity and personal choice would to me be the ultimate cruelty. I love them too much.