Friday, March 25, 2005

The More Things Change, The Weirder They Get (Doing The Right Thing)

I've been watching the Terri Schiavo situation with a fairly critical eye, for a number of reasons, and I think, as this situation has played itself out, and as it continues to do so, this case is far more intricate than it appears on the surface.

The "right to die" in America, ie the questions of suicide, euthanasia, and, to a lesser degree, abortion, is and always will be a simple us vs. them mentality: some people subscribe to the theory that a person can do what he wants with his or her own body and should be free from governmental controls thereupon; others believe that life is sacred and should be protected, even if it means protecting a person from taking his or her (or her baby's) life. It's perhaps coincidence that many of the people subscribing to the latter point of view are also staunch defenders of creationism vs. the Big Bang theory and Darwin's Theory of Evolution. In some ways, it's a debate over science and religion. And since one can be easily and repeatedly documented with fact, examples and consistent prediction, and the other is based on nothing beyond faith, there is no debate. Yet people cling to that which they believe; it's what helps them sleep at night. And whereas each side is frustrated by the other, part of why this nation is great is that each side can ascribe to their own beliefs as long as they don't infringe on another's rights. The problem is each side's dedication to their beliefs, for better or worse, not only directly opposes the other's beliefs, but is committed to "converting" the other to its way of thinking.

It's confusing, perplexing, and about as easily-resolved as a multi-generational Hatfield-McCoy Battle Royale outside a trailer park in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Which brings us back to Terri Schiavo, et al.

Michael Schiavo, who has spent the last several days at his wife's side, has spent the last 14 years, give or take, taking care of his wife. Her condition has not deteriorated, but since she collapsed due to heart failure in connection with an eating disorder, she has had irreversible brain damage and has been in a "permanent semi-vegetative state." These are the facts.

In 2001, Michael Schiavo, after spending a decade watching his wife linger as a low-functioning mass of human tissue, sought to have her feeding tube removed in order to let her die naturally. Her parents intervened. They claimed that Ms. Schiavo could improve, and that Mr. Schiavo's care was negligient, and, given better care, Ms. Schiavo would return from her "low state of consciousness." The compromise was that she would continue under Mr. Schiavo's custody and would remain alive. During this time, Ms. Schiavo's parents regularly accused Mr. Schiavo of abusing and/or neglecting his wife and repeatedly attempted to gain custody of their daughter. They begged Mr. Schiavo to divorce her and move on with his life, but something, apparently, kept him from doing so. Obviously it would have been far easier to rid himself of the entire situation -- all he would need to do is to sign divorce papers and he could be free of the Schindlers, and their intrusive meddling, accusations and intervening, and move on with his life.

Except he clearly loved and cared deeply about his wife; knowing she would never improve, never be (nearly) the person she once was, and never be fully-functioning, he deigned to obey her wishes to not be kept alive as a breathing, semi-living mass of tissue. Essentially, this notion of preferring death to life as a vegetable, mirrors in a small way Rene Descartes Discourse on Method, "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am).

All this was lost on Ms. Schiavo's parents; they wanted to control her, and didn't care what he (or even their daughter) thought or felt. And for the past 14 or so years, they have been doing everything they can to control her, him and the situation.

Not much has been discussed about the Schindlers, but on the surface, they appear to be caring, concerned, committed parents. But noting the simple fact that Ms. Schiavo's condition was brought on by an eating disorder, a condition which is almost always a symptom of parental control and/or abuse issues, it should not be a surprise that Ms. Schiavo's parents have waged this campaign of "we know what's best for our daughter," forsaking all outside involvement (including doctors) except for those individuals who can return control of their daughter to them.

And it should be no surprise that when Mr. Schindler, yesterday, suggested that Judge George Greer was on a crusade to kill his daughter, he was being absolutely serious. According to, "Schiavo's parents have said that in the 23 decisions against them, judges have not considered all the facts and, in fact, are joining forces in what Bob Schindler called a 'crusade to kill' his daughter." If a woman's life, and a family's pain, were not at stake, the situation would almost be laughable.

But it isn't laughable.

Some parents take the notion of guiding their children to a dangerous, unhealthy level, and wind up controlling them. While my parents certainly are not in that realm, I have seen firsthand the destruction -- both short- and long-term -- that controlling, dysfunctional parents can wreak on children. They ignore any and all outside influence, even if their way defies common sense, common decency and proper behavior, and do things their own way; anyone who opposes them in any way is attacked, ridiculed and denigrated. Whether this control simply produces a weak-willed, meek child with low self-esteem and a lifelong litany of addictions, problems and dysfunction, or produces a child who wants nothing to do with his or her parents, its damage is difficult to reverse, if at all, and is palpable. Ms. Schiavo's eating disorder came about when she was in her 30's; just as many manifestations of parental abuse and/or over-control appear in children during their adolescence, their 20's, or even later in life once the offending parent(s) has died. So, despite 23 court decisions which have opposed Mr. & Mrs. Schindler's attempts to retain control of their daughter, they have failed, and in doing so, they have attacked the ethics and the credibility of the judges, their son-in-law, and any doctor who dares oppose their far-fetched, fictional beliefs.

To wit, Mr. Schindler was recently quoted as saying "We've had some of the best legal minds in the country working on this. I do think that what was presented last night in federal court is very, very viable, and we're encouraging the appellate court to take a hard look at this thing and to do the right thing." Unless, of course, doing the right thing is allowing his daughter some dignity so she doesn't spend another decade as a barely-living shadow of a human being.

And while America watches and awaits Terri Schiavo's death, these parents pound away at any pulpit that will support them, any politician that will seek to ride their plight to an election victory, and anyone who believes that they are right.

Initially, I, like many observers of this spectacle, felt that Ms. Schiavo's parents deserved empathy and compassion for the ordeal with which they were faced. Parents should never outlive their children, and despite Michael Schiavo doing "the right thing," he was belittled and accused of mistreating their daughter. So as I watch this situation continually unfold, and I try to suppress my shock at the Schindlers' behavior, I begin, more and more, to empathize with Mr. Schiavo. He cares deeply about his wife, otherwise he would have simply bolted once her parents began the process of suing him. While he has a common law wife and young children, his life has been put on hold by these control freaks, and it's unfortunate that they are so far gone that they cannot see that they not only contributed to her misery and pain while she was living, they have done so yet again as her life expires.

But in an ironic twist, as is typical of many of these situations, the tighter the fist around their child, the more likely it is they will lose their daughter. Unless, of course, the Schindlers suddenly wake up and realize they need to "do the right thing."

Not likely.

No comments: