Terri Schiavo: Not governor's call to make

Posted: October 04, 2004

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

For the three of you who came in late: 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.

Schiavo's husband agrees and gave permission for the doctors to proceed. Enter Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush, acting on behalf of Terri's parents, who have fought their son-in-law every step of the way. The result was "Terri's Law," which empowered the governor to order Terri's feeding tube reconnected, in defiance of previous rulings and Michael Schiavo's wishes.

Last Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously struck down Bush's attempt to hijack Schiavo's right to make end-of-life decisions for his wife. I hope that's the last word.

Frankly, I don't know if 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. Your humble correspondent believes 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 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 Michael 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 Michael 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 Terri's parents that he wants her dead so he can pocket what's left of a medical malpractice settlement is only that - an accusation.

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. Meaning the alacrity with which some conservatives - underline "some" - 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 talking about regulations some captains of industry find onerous. But let an individual make a personal decision with which those same conservatives disagree, and they 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.

Gov. Bush disapproves of Michael 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 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.

Leonard Pitts Jr. (lpitts@herald.com), winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, appears regularly.

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