Sunday, March 20, 2005

State Assisted Homicide

This week Scott Peterson was sentenced to death row for the rest of his earthly days. A jury found him deserving of the severest punishment they could mete out for murdering Laci and Connor Peterson, although the case against Scott was circumstantial. He could have divorced his wife and left her to the care of her loving, supportive Rocha family. We may never know the specific causes leading to his unthinkable act of violence, but we do know he was pursuing Amber Frey and was the only beneficiary of Laci’s life insurance policy.

This week Michael Schiavo succeeded in sentencing his wife Terri to death. Michael’s case for killing his wife is circumstantial. He could have divorced her and left her to the care of her loving, supportive Schindler family. We may never know exactly why Michael withheld the rehabilitation that could have improved his wife’s prognosis and quality of life, but we do know he began a new relationship and family mere years after Terri’s collapse and he is the only beneficiary spending her malpractice award.

Is Michael Schiavo the Scott Peterson of Florida? Not if a majority of the Congress can stop him.

My mother died in 1994 from slow starvation and dehydration. One year earlier she had begun home dialysis treatment via a catheter in her peritoneum. Two months later she suffered a mild stroke, which led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, after which she was further incapacitated by deep vein thrombosis. Finally, she developed a tumor on her peritoneum rendering home dialysis impossible. Rather than endure half-day treatments several times per week at the public hemodialysis center, my mother said enough was enough and made a living will to protect her decision to let kidney failure take its unobstructed course at home under the loose monitoring of hospice staff.

Is death by starvation and dehydration the easy, peaceful exit that some right-to-die advocates have recently described? Not in my mother’s experience.

At first she felt a temporary lift after removal of all medications. Then she became disoriented, mistaking visitors for long-deceased family members. As she began to deteriorate, my mother, a lapsed Catholic, gratefully received her last rites. Often she seemed to be fighting for life as a series of seizures and strokes took her farther and farther away. The last words she moaned have haunted me for eleven years: “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

My sister and I got into an ugly fight and the hospice nurse told me it was too late to reverse the damage anyway. All I could do was massage my mother’s septic body gently with lotion to try to ease the terrible itching that accompanies kidney failure and pray that the peace she sought was at hand. Still she seemed agitated for another week as though every last gram of life had to be wrung from her. Nearly a month after her final feeding, my mother exhaled loudly and died in my arms.

The very young son of a dear friend died from pneumonia, a complication of brain cancer. I was at his deathbed after he lost consciousness and witnessed his continued responsiveness to his family’s commands.

Terri Schiavo has been a disabled woman for fifteen years. She is neither comatose nor suffering from life-threatening diseases. Many of her biological systems are working normally. She made no written directives to support or contradict her husband’s allegation that she did not want to live under such dependent circumstances, an allegation he did not publicize until after he received the malpractice award.

Christopher Reeve lived nine years after the awful accident that left him paralyzed and on a feeding tube. His spouse insured that he received every available treatment to improve his prognosis and quality of life. Imagine Dana Reeve canceling his regimen and suing to have his feeding tube removed!

The choices for Terri Schiavo are not limited to “artificial” life or premature death, regardless of what Michael Schiavo might claim. Her family is desperate to take care of their daughter and sister for the rest of her earthly days. That Michael Schiavo is not willing to give Terri and her family the more humane option is his fatal flaw. It need not be Terri’s.

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