Jewish World Review May 2, 2005/ 23 Nisan, 5765
Americans lost in the shadows
This past March, Imparato, speaking to CNN regarding Schiavo's plight,
said that he feared that "when we start devaluing the lives of peoples
with disabilities, we don't know where that's going to stop."
Tellingly, he added: "You also need to take into account the financial
implications of all of this. We have an economy that is not doing as
well as it once was and a lot of people are looking at how can we save
money. One way to save money is make it easier for people with
disabilities to die."
Since the final removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, disability
rights organizations have become increasingly involved with getting
Congress to pass federal legislation that can begin protecting the
voiceless as Terri was against guardians who have conflicts of
interest. Their claims to know the wishes of persons who can't speak for
themselves are often disputed by other members of the disabled's family.
While Terri Schiavo was still alive, moreover, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa),
working hard to get congressional intervention in Schiavo's case, said:
"There are a lot of people in the shadows, all over this country, who
are incapacitated because of a disability, and many times there is no
one to speak for them, and it is hard to determine what their wishes
really are or were."
For years, I have relied on information and analysis on a deeply
informed spokeswoman for disability rights, Mary Johnson, whose valuable
Web site is www.raggededgemagazine.com. As she says:
"The issue is much bigger than Schiavo, and it is not about the 'right
to life' it is about equal protection of the law. Constitutional
The 14th Amendment guarantees every one of us that no state shall
deprive "any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of
law." And the tragedy of Schiavo was that in all of the courts, up to
and including the Supreme Court, she was indeed bereft of due process
because those courts relied entirely on the rigid misunderstanding of
the facts by one circuit state court judge in Florida.
That's why Congress must provide carefully designed federal legislation
for Americans "in the shadows." As Harkin says: "Where someone is
incapacitated and their life support can be taken away, it seems to me
that it is appropriate where there is a dispute, as there is in this
case that a federal court come in (outside of a state court's
jurisdiction), like we do in habeas corpus situations, and review it and
make another determination."
Those of us who are not incapacitated, but may only be "temporarily
able," should also beware Harkin warns of guardians who feel "that
their ward is as good as dead, better off dead, or that the guardian
himself or herself would be better off without the ward."
Also in need of protection by federal law are the disabled in hospitals
in those states where doctors and bioethics committees can and do decide
to refuse intensive care to patients they consider "futile" to further
treat. These abandoned human beings may include people diagnosed as
being in a persistent vegetative state (a diagnosis that is not
error-free) or in a minimally conscious state.
Two years ago, during my coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, I quoted
her father, Bob Schindler, who turned out to be prophetic as to his
daughter's ultimate fate: "We pay great lip service in this country to
disability rights, but as the degree of a person's disability increases,
the level of protection that person receives decreases."
Another valuable researcher and writer on disability rights whom I
consult regularly, Wesley Smith, special consultant to the Center for
Bioethics and Culture, warns:
"Unless people object strongly and legislatures take active steps to
intervene, this new and deadly game of 'Doctor Knows Best' will be
coming soon to a hospital near you."
Terri Schiavo's prolonged, unjust death shows that state legislatures
cannot be relied on to protect the disabled, particularly the voiceless.
In Congress, there are members on both sides of the aisle who recognize
the urgent need for legislation to separate the lawful right to die of
cognitive people who wish to refuse treatment from a "duty to die"
imposed on those who cannot defend themselves from the steadily
advancing culture of death.
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