The “aftermath” of Terri Schiavo continues to be distorted by The New York Times

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. As best I can tell, the New York Times has not revisited the starvation death of Terri Schindler Schiavo recently, except to take potshots at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush who backed the Schindler family against Terri’s estranged husband. The following commentary appeared last year, on the ninth anniversary of Terri’s horrific ordeal, in response to a dreadful piece in the Times. I strongly suspect if the Times had bothered to again recall what happened, its narrative would be just as bogus and as misguided as its account was in 2014.

TerriSchiavo34If you didn’t follow the terribly tragedy that was the unnecessary death of Terri Schiavo, it might shock you how much misinformation and snarky commentary made their way into Clyde Haberman’s 1,057-word-long Sunday story, “From Private Ordeal to National Fight: The Case of Terri Schiavo,” and how many relevant facts did not.

Haberman’s narrative twist is derived from his too clever by twenty lead paragraph:

“Her surname in Italian means ‘slave,’ and is pronounced skee-AH-vo. Grim as it may be, the word could apply to Theresa Marie Schiavo, even with its Americanized pronunciation: SHY-vo.”

Naturally, as do all those who defend Terri’s 2005 death by starvation and dehydration, Haberman gives the back of his hand to lawmakers in Florida, the United State Congress, and President George W. Bush for trying to save a woman whose long-since estranged husband was adamant that her feeding tube should be withdrawn and that her parents and siblings would not be allowed to take her home to care for her.

To Haberman, it’s just a big [bogus] “national morality play” that cynical politicians foisted on their “slave,” Terri Schiavo. Better her family fight their battle with her estranged husband out of the public eye.

But the Schindlers were made of sterner stuff than Haberman and did everything humanly possible to save Terri.

Three points about the article which is accompanied by a video that is part of what The New York Times pompously calls “Retro Report.” What’s that?

It “re-examines leading stories of decades past” as “a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle.“

First, if Haberman wasn’t so bent on turning what happen to Terri into his own morality play, he might have recalled that “Schiavo” is her married name. Her maiden name was Schindler. That gives a whole new twist, does it not, to his slave metaphor?

Second,

“Mr. Schiavo wanted to detach the feeding tube that gave her nourishment. Terri never would have wanted to be kept alive that way, he said. The Schindlers insisted that the tube be kept in place.”

Nothing in the story gives the reader even a passing sense of what it is to be starved and dehydrated to death, or that there was scant “evidence” Terri would have wanted her feeding tube removed.

Third, the whole point of this series is not only to view the past, we are told, but to see its “legacy” today. Haberman writes

“Larger questions remain, affecting an estimated 25,000 Americans deemed by doctors to be in a vegetative state. Complicating matters are studies like those reported last week by a team in Belgium and earlier by Adrian M. Owen, a British neuroscientist working in Canada. They have found through brain-imaging techniques that residual cognitive capacity may exist in some people classified as vegetative.

“Another issue is what qualifies as death with dignity. Is it allowing a person to go gentle into that good night of Dylan Thomas? Or does providing him or her with tools like a feeding tube allow the person to rage if possible against the dying of the light?”

A major point—perhaps the most important point–of the Lancet study Haberman alludes to is that far too many people are prematurely and incorrectly diagnosed as being in a PVS “and sent to nursing homes where no effort is made to rehabilitate them, and where emerging consciousness might not even be recognized,” to quote (ironically enough) from the New York Times’ coverage of the study!

(For our take on the study, see here.)

For a time Terri did receive rehabilitation. The whole fight between the estranged husband and the Schindler family kicked into overdrive when he decided to stop the rehabilitation therapy.

And, for the record, the family adamantly insists Terri was not in a PVS.

Finally, as a perfect illustration of how Haberman gets everything backwards, Dylan Thomas’ great poem is not about going gently into any night, good or otherwise, but fighting until the very end—exactly what Terri’s parents and siblings did on her behalf.

It would almost be impossible to misrepresent the “legacy” of Terri Schiavo any more completely than has Mr. Haberman.