The Case of Theresa Schiavo

Constant coverage missed the story

| June 2, 2005


For a story that dominated cable news talk shows, newspaper front pages, blog chatter, and water-cooler debates, surprisingly few facts were known about Theresa Schiavo's case. What exactly was her medical state? What happened when she collapsed in 1990? Did she or didn't she, as reports hinted, have an eating disorder?

Polemics filled the investigative-reporting hole. Theresa Schiavo's case became a political football lobbed back and forth by those who appointed themselves the champions of her cause. Avid right-to-lifers saw a chance to grow their movement while the opposing camp cried foul at political and legislative opportunism. The media dutifully panned back and forth, pausing not to reflect but to stoke the flames.

In an essay in The New York Review of Books, Joan Didion picks up the mantle of responsible journalist, delving into depositions, testimony, the police record, and medical research. She turns up some information that may rattle the stalwart 'right to die' defenders, including the 'doubtful assumption' that a heart attack caused her brain damage. But showing up the media isn't the objective here. What interests Didion is diagnosing the pathology of people's 'considerable investment in keeping this story on the safe ground of political indignation.'

For Didion, Schiavo's predicament laid bare an urgent ethical quandary: 'The question began with the different ways in which we define a life worth living, but it did not stop there. The question had ultimately to do with whether or not there could be occasions when the broad economic and ethical interests of the society at large should outweigh any individual claim to either the most advanced medical attention ... or indefinite care.'



The chance to weigh the question was drowned out, Didion suggests, by people locked into certainty by a refusal to contemplate tough issues: the futility of making specific medical decisions about hypothetical, inconceivable situations; the coercive nature of the culture's push for people not to be a burden; and the ramifications of judging the value of another's life.

'On the day Theresa Schiavo finally died it seemed clear that the unthinkable question could for the time being remain unthought,' Didion writes. 'Freed of the need to avoid confronting the presence of an actual moral dilemma, all sides could reassume their usual fencing positions. All sides could imagine that by exposing the errors of the opposition, they had advanced the public dialogue.'
-- Hannah Lobel