The Case of Theresa Schiavo

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

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The Case of Theresa
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