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Jewish World Review March 28, 2005/ 17 Adar II, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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Judicial barbarism may end in horrific death | Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer has again ordered the removal of 41-year-old Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. As of this writing, attempts by the Republican Congressional leadership and some Democrats are being made to save her, through the courts, but the odds are long. If she dies of dehydration and starvation, this grave injustice can affect the rights of many disabled Americans who do not have clearly written directives as to their treatment when they can no longer speak their wishes.

The fundamental issue in Terri's case is disability rights — not the right to die. Throughout all the extensive media coverage of the case, there has been only slight mention — usually none at all — that nearly every major disability rights organization has filed legal briefs to prevent what they and I regard as judicial murder. The protests are not only from pro-lifers and the Christian Right.

Schiavo — who collapsed in 1990 from what may have been a potassium imbalance that temporarily stopped her heart and cut oxygen to her brain — has never been comatose, brain dead or in a persistent vegetative state (despite what some physicians have stated — and others have denied). She is responsive not only to her parents, brother and sister, but also when a new lawyer comes into the room — she turns, as she hears an unfamiliar voice. I have statements from people who have seen her and whose credibility I have reason to trust, as to her unmistakable responsiveness beyond mere reflexes.

She has not been attached to any machines — only to a small feeding tube by which she is fed three times a day.

The primary judge in her case, George Greer, has steadfastly found "clear and convincing evidence" to support the contention of her husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo, that before she collapsed in 1990, she said she would not want to continue to live in the state she's been in for 15 years. The only source for this claim is Michael Schiavo and two of his relatives. However, one of Terri's best friends, Diane Christine Meyer, has testified in court that Terri told her forcefully she would, indeed, want to live if she could no longer express her wishes. Judge Greer discounted the testimony.

As to Michael Schiavo's credibility, he has long been living with another woman, with whom he's had two children. He has forbidden therapy or rehabilitation for Terri since 1991, or any further tests since 1993. Terri has never even had an MRI or PET scan, let alone a complete neurological examination. As Republican majority leader, Dr. Bill Frist, who has had experience with disabled patients, said of Judge George Greer on the Senate floor:

"A Florida judge has ruled that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state. This same judge has denied a request for new testing and examinations of Terri by independent and qualified medical professionals. As a doctor, this troubles me. All the more so when the attorney for Terri's parents submitted 33 affidavits from doctors and other medical professionals that Terri should be re-evaluated." And a number of them believe that, with new tests and therapy, she may indeed improve.

Researchers supporting Terri allege Michael Schiavo has denied his wife, a Catholic, sacraments (an important rite in that religion), saying he doesn't want her to choke on the Communion wafer (his lawyer denies this). Yet he pressed for the removal of her feeding tube. On March 15, appearing on ABC-TV's "Nightline" in a disgracefully one-sided account of the case that should shame Ted Koppel (who wasn't on the show but was in charge), Michael Schiavo said that without the feeding tube, Terri "will drift off to a nice little sleep and eventually pass on and be with G-d."

In dread fact, Terri faces a horrific death from dehydration. In covering previous cases when feeding tubes have been removed, I've found out how terribly painful this way of dying is for someone like Terri who is not in a persistent vegetative state and can feel: By the eighth day, without water, her liver, spleen, kidneys, stomach, esophagus, tongue and eyeballs will swell and begin to crack.

All of her body's organs — by her ninth or 10th day — will have split and cracked. Not long after this agonizing ordeal, she will die.

Complicit in this egregious denial to Terri of due process and equal protection of the law has been the American Civil Liberties Union. It correctly called unconstitutional the Florida legislation pushed through by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 to reinsert the feeding tube because it applied to only one person.

But ever since, the ACLU has supported Michael Schiavo's insistence on putting Terri to death. But it has not shown any awareness of her husband's blatant conflicts of interest — with such results as his withdrawal of therapy and rehabilitation from her.

However, the ACLU would insist that a prison death row inmate receive vastly more civil liberties than Terri Schiavo has from the Florida courts.

As a Feb. 28 letter to the Washington Times from John Sobieski asks: "Who's next? Alzheimer's victims? The elderly in nursing homes? Will we be allowed to do to people what is illegal to do to dogs?"

The courts — and the ignorant coverage by most of the media of this crucial case — have until now appallingly failed Terri Schiavo and the community of the disabled ...

And who knows how may more innocent victims in the years ahead?

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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