Schiavo's gone, but the debate isn't over yet

April 12, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - You're entitled to your own opinion, an old debater's saying goes, but not your own facts. Whoever made up that line never imagined the Terri Schiavo case.

The death of the 41-year-old woman ended the debate over her feeding tube and pushed her story off the front page. But the arguing over when and whether her feeding tube should have been removed goes on, complete with new evidence to bolster each side's positions.

Stung by major polls that showed most Americans supported removing her feeding tube, the Christian Defense Coalition, which supported keeping Mrs. Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube, commissioned a new Zogby poll that appears to support keeping her tube engaged.

Asked whether food and water should be denied to a disabled person if that individual "is not terminally ill" and has "no written directive," 80 percent of the respondents said "no."

The same poll also finds that, by a 3-to-1 ratio, Americans want elected officials to order a feeding tube to remain in place "if there is conflicting testimony surrounding the case."

Actually, those results by Zogby, one of the nation's most respected pollsters, show the good sense of the American people. Mrs. Schiavo was more than disabled. The central issue of contention in the Schiavo case was whether she indeed was still alive, or was that just her body functioning without a brain.

Five doctors tried to answer that question in court over the years. Two were chosen by Mrs. Schiavo's parents, two by her husband and one by the Florida judiciary. All but the two doctors who were hired by her parents said Mrs. Schiavo's brain had ceased cognitive function years ago. Her cerebral cortex allegedly was gone, replaced by fluid, and her body's visible actions, such as gazing and smiling, were reflexes.

Only one of the two dissenting doctors, William Hammesfahr, was a neurologist. The other dissenter was William Maxfield, a diagnostic and therapeutic radiologist. It was Dr. Hammesfahr who claimed in court and on various TV talk shows that Mrs. Schiavo could recover with some neurological therapies that had not been tried.

In many of those appearances, Dr. Hammesfahr was touted as "nominated for the Nobel Prize."

In fact, Dr. Hammesfahr testified in a 2002 court hearing that he was recommended for a Nobel Prize by none other than Florida Republican Rep. Michael Bilirakis, who is not qualified under Nobel rules to make any such nomination.

The courts, faced with the thankless task of resolving the family dispute over Mrs. Schiavo's fate, found Dr. Hammesfahr's claims to be without merit. For this, judges have been beaten up as evil "activists" by such self-styled paragons of virtue as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The Daily Show host Jon Stewart probably had the most accurate assessment of that extraordinary chain of events: "Now we know just how sick you have to be before this Congress cares enough about you to take action on your health care."

Enough. Let Terri Schiavo rest in peace. Her greatest legacy may be the dialogue and legislation that her tragedy forces the rest of us to engage in. After the media frenzy and political grandstanding, let there be reflection, investigation and a productive debate about what right-to-die legislation makes the most sense and what the proper relationship should be between the federal and state governments on this issue.

And through it all, let us respect each other for the differences in our views. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Let's try to agree on one set of facts.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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