Florida woman's fate is a personal decision, not a political one

October 03, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Is it too much to hope Terri Schiavo will finally be allowed to die in peace?

Mrs. Schiavo, 40, has been in what doctors describe as a "persistent vegetative state" since she fell ill and suffered brain damage 14 years ago. Her body lives, but the medical consensus is that her mind does not and never will. Doctors want to disconnect her feeding tube and allow her to die.

Mrs. Schiavo's husband agrees and gave permission for the doctors to proceed. Enter Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, acting on behalf of Mrs. Schiavo's parents, who have fought their son-in-law every step of the way. The result was "Terri's Law," passed in a rush by state lawmakers and signed in a fever by Mr. Bush in 2003. It empowered the governor to order Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube reconnected, in defiance of previous court rulings and Michael Schiavo's wishes.

On Sept. 23, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously struck down Mr. Bush's attempt to hijack Mr. Schiavo's right to make end-of-life decisions on his wife's behalf.

I hope that's the last word.

Frankly, I don't know if Mr. Schiavo made the right choice or the wrong one. I don't even know that those terms apply.

Were I in his shoes, I have no idea what decisions I'd make. I believe in holding out for miracles. But who can say how that faith would be affected after 14 years of watching the woman I loved exist in a stuporous state where she didn't know me, didn't even know herself?

I don't know what I would do. If you think you do, my guess is that you're lying, if only to yourself.

But the pertinent question isn't what you would do or what I would do. It is, rather, what Mr. Schiavo has the moral and legal right to do.

We hear a lot of bloviating about the sanctity of marriage these days, but if that phrase means anything, it means this: the person you love enough and trust enough to join in legal union is empowered to make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to make them yourself. This person speaks for you when you cannot speak for yourself.

That's a sacred obligation, and it ought not be violated even by parents, much less government, absent compelling evidence of a spouse's malfeasance or incompetence. We've seen no such evidence where Mr. Schiavo is concerned.

Yes, he entered into a relationship with another woman after his wife became ill. That proves not malfeasance, but humanity. And the accusation by Mrs. Schiavo's parents that he wants her dead so he can pocket what's left of a medical malpractice settlement is only that - an accusation.

Mr. Schiavo's crime, if you want to use that word, is in making a wrenching choice some of us would not have made. For that, he finds himself facing off against the governor and legislature of Florida. They should be ashamed.

There is a galling hypocrisy here, after all. Meaning the alacrity with which some conservatives jettison the conservative credo that government should interfere as little as possible in the lives and decisions of the people. Oh, they are perfectly willing to make that argument so long as we're only talking about government regulation some captain of industry finds onerous. But let an individual make a difficult personal decision with which those same conservatives disagree, and they suddenly become as intrusive and regulation-minded as the liberalest liberal.

As a moral issue, this case is a tangled knot of competing emotions. As a legal matter, it seems much simpler, a perception underscored by the unanimity of the court's ruling.

Governor Bush disapproves of Mr. Schiavo's decision to let his wife die, and that's certainly his right. But one hopes the rebuke from the state's top court will help Mr. Bush understand something he has thus far failed to grasp: It's not his decision to make.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

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