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Jewish World Review July 11, 2005/ 4 Tamuz, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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The continuing case of Terri Schiavo | The end of the June 15 autopsy report on Terri Schiavo states that it is the policy of the medical examiner's officer "that no case is ever closed and that all determinations are to be reconsidered upon receipt of credible, new information." Whatever new information, if any, comes to light, the facts of who she was and how she died will inevitably change the way many of us confront our own deaths.

Pat Anderson, for a long time the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, said the day Terri died of dehydration — as ordered by the courts and her husband — "Euthanasia in America now has a name — and a face."

Dr. Jon Thogmartin's autopsy report made clear that Terri Schiavo was not dying, let alone terminal. As Dr. Carl D'Angio wrote in a June 21 letter in the New York Times: "Her family loved what was left of her and asked only to be permitted to care for her at their own expense. My question is, who or what was better served by her passive execution by water deprivation than by the first alternative?"

Responding to the autopsy report, Terri's parents said: "Terri's case was NOT an end-of-life case. Terri's case was about ending a disabled person's life. Terri was brain-injured. This does NOT mean that she was brain-dead."

Her parents also noted that "according to the medical examiner, Terri was given morphine for pain as she died ... If Terri could feel no pain, as some would say, why would these drugs be necessary? In our opinion, the treating health care officials understood that Terri felt pain."

There was a service when Michael Schiavo, her husband, buried her cremated remains on June 20 in Clearwater, Fla., where he lives. However, Terri's parents were not there — he did not tell them.

That tells me something about Michael Schiavo. Also, on a bronze grave marker, he had taken pains to order, he wrote: "I kept my promise."

Concurring, a headline in the June 16 New York Post exclaimed: "Terri had no hope — Autopsy supports her husband." With few exceptions, this was also the opinion of many editorial writers and columnists around the country. Another consensus in the media was that her rights had been, indeed laboriously, upheld by the courts, up to and including the Supreme Court.

But the true core of this case, resulting in the extraction of her life, was the decision by Circuit Judge George Greer in Florida that Michael Schiavo had kept his promise by adhering to what he claims Terri told him, before her brain injury, that she would not want to live if she were kept artificially alive.

This alleged statement was just hearsay, confirmed only by Michael Schiavo's brother and sister-in-law. But Judge Greer paid no attention to the sworn testimony of a close friend of Terri, who testified Terri had said her wishes would have been to go on living in such a situation.

Moreover, Judge Greer repeatedly refused to take into consideration, with regard to the husband's credibility, that Michael Schiavo, after Terri became disabled, had for years been living with another woman, with whom he's had two children, although he had said he would devote his life to caring for his wife.

Also, Michael Schiavo did not mention her alleged wishes for years after her brain damage, at one point saying he didn't know her wishes. Yet Judge Greer allowed Michael Schiavo to act as her guardian, while not permitting Terri to have her own lawyer representing her. (Her parents had a lawyer, but elementary due process required that an attorney directly represent this disabled woman, whose husband was intent on her interment.)

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After the autopsy, there were renewed, scathing attacks on those members of Congress who had tried to have the federal courts intervene to save Terri's life. But since a state court judge had sentenced her to death — ordering her feeding tube removed three times — elementary due process required a review of the entire case in the federal courts by authority of the Fourteenth Amendment's "equal protection of the laws."

Most of the media omitted the fact that in Congress, there were many Democrats as well as Republicans who tried hard to provide Terri the essence of our legal system — due process — before it was too late.

But then, the great majority of the federal judges who became involved relied entirely on the state circuit judge's unyielding death sentence. I called this judicial murder, the longest public execution in our history. Despite Michael Schiavo's bronze marker on her grave, I have not changed my mind.

Michael Schiavo's literary agent, David Vigliano, is sending proposals for a book by the husband to publishers. Says Mr. Vigliano: "I think this is the seminal case in the right to die with dignity story."


This is the seminal case for whether euthanasia for the seriously disabled becomes embedded in the American way of death.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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