Terri Schiavo's Revenge

Dems: the party of "Trust us, you're better off dead."

Back in early 2005, America's national controversy of the moment revolved around a high-tech hospital bed in Florida in which languished one Terri Schiavo - or perhaps her forsaken shell; nobody could tell for certain whether she was still in there or not.  The unfortunate Mrs. Schiavo had suffered a debilitating heart attack in 1990 which destroyed her brain functions.  For the next decade and a half she remained either comatose or in a vegetative state, entirely dependent for her survival on complex machinery and round-the-clock professional care.

Strange as it may seem, it is not unheard of for a long-term vegetative person to suddenly wake up after years of unconsciousness.  It is, however, quite rare, and keeping the vegetative body "alive" in the meantime is exceedingly expensive.

What's more, there are persistent reports of people's minds being "trapped" in a completely non-responsive body - that is, they can hear and think perfectly well, but cannot respond, move, or function in any visible way.  It would be difficult to imagine a more blood-curdling form of imprisonment, in the minds of many quite literally a fate worse than death.

Many healthy people have told their loved ones that if they're ever in such a state, "pull the plug and put me out of my misery."  According to her husband Michael, Mrs. Schiavo had said just that to him prior to her accident.  After a few years passed with her still unresponsive, he tried to convince first the doctors and then the courts to unplug the machinery and let her body die.

Her parents felt strongly the other way, wanting no effort spared to keep their daughter alive even if only technically.  In the end, Mr. Schiavo won, Terri was unplugged, and before long her body rejoined her mind, wherever it might have been.

There are many vital legal and ethical questions involved in this case.  When, exactly, are you dead?  When is it fair to give up on hope of recovery?  How much should be spent on seemingly hopeless cases, and at whose expense?  But the most fundamental question of all is:  Who should make those decisions?

It seems like ancient history now, but at the time Republicans were ascendant both nationally and in Terri's state of Florida.  In keeping with Republican pro-life traditions, Republican politicians argued that nobody has to right to declare someone else's life not worth living and thus Terri had to be kept alive no matter what anyone else thought.  On the other hand, Democrats argued that it was not the government's business what decisions someone made about his or her own life - or, if like Terri they were in no fit state to make decisions, their nearest and dearest could make the call.

The final court decision came down based on hundreds of years of tradition, custom, legal precedent, and common sense: your closest relatives, in this case Terri's husband, make the decision.  Her parents were close relatives and they felt differently, but the spouse is closer.

Along the way to this tragic decision, America got to see politicians from President Bush and Governor Bush on down attempting to force their desired outcome by passing special laws.  This shone a bright spotlight on fundamental preferences of the two parties.  The bottom line that America took away from the argument was: Republicans want to keep you alive no matter what; Democrats don't mind if you choose to die, or your relatives choose to let you.

The Consequences of Lessons Learned

At the time, that worked out well for Democrats.  It was, after all, Republican politicians who wanted to force the government's nose into an intimate family decision.  A great many people fear being trapped in a coma and, were they in Terri's state, would want the plug pulled without much chit-chat.

Democrats cast Republicans as captive to religious extremists and, in a strange turnabout from the norm, claimed that Republicans were in favor of more intrusive government.  The Terri Schiavo case is given partial credit for the 2006 Democratic recapture of Congress.  Her death was a victory for the Dems.

And yet...

Fast forward to today.  The Democrats reign supreme with unstoppable majorities in both houses of Congress and, of course, have President Obama in the White House.  For fifty years their fondest wish has been to establish a universal health care system of some form, guaranteeing medical care at taxpayer expense to all residents of America whether here legally or not.

The problem is, what the government grants, it can also take away.  If government provides everyone's health care, it can also decide when you don't get care, or what kinds of care you are allowed.

This is a worrying prospect, one which Sarah Palin and other Republicans are hammering home.  After all, didn't the Democrats just pound Republicans for refusing to unplug someone who was plainly in medical need?  Gov. Palin makes a powerful argument connecting past Democratic history that everybody knows with Mr. Obama's medical plans of today.  She said:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Pulling the Plug on Grandma

Needless to say, Mr. Obama was not amused.

The rumor that's been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided that we don't, it's too expensive to let her live anymore....It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, etc. So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they're ready on their own terms. It wasn't forcing anybody to do anything.

The President has missed the point.  It's not that Mr. Obama will force people to die by withholding medical treatment, at least, not in the law that's now before Congress.  It's that under his plan, the government can force people to die by refusing to pay for treatment, and what's more, government has every financial incentive to do so.

It comes back to trust.  Given that under a national health care system, government can kill your grandma and save money by killing her, do you trust the government to recognize euthanasia for the evil that it is?

Republicans paid a price in the Terri Schiavo ruckus, but it appears that the price they paid bought them something valuable: the confidence of most Americans that Republicans don't want to kill expensive patients no matter what.

In 2005, the Democrats convinced Americans that they don't mind if you want to die.  Today they want to give themselves the power and incentive to persuade you that you'd be better off dead.

What an unhealthy combination!  Even the least politically-aware American knows that when the government wants you to do something, it finds a way to make life very difficult for you unless you do what they want.  What will happen when the government wants you to choose to die to save them a buck, but you're not ready to kick the bucket just yet?  Nothing good...

Is it any wonder the American electorate is panic-stricken at the prospect of Obamacare passing into law?  Terri Schiavo is dead, but the public manner of her death and the vivid details of her story may end up saving the lives of countless American retirees.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
The Terri Schiavo analogy to Obama's health care is facile at best.

The government merely decided WHO had the right to make the final decision; it didn't make the decision itself. They sided with the husband because he was, as you said, the closest relative and, regardless of how the GOP and Schiavo's parents tried to vilify him, was never convicted of any crime or wrongdoing.

A better analogy would be to the Bush/Gore election in 2000. In that case, the government (again, rightly) ruled that the public opinion didn't matter and that it was a local issue with local deciders.

"Not wanting to kill expensive patients no matter what" was a horrible point the GOP tried to make with Schiavo. First, the common man understood that it wasn't the GOPs right to make that decision for OTHER PEOPLE just because they had fancy pictures or gushy slogans. Nor did the GOP actually have the confidence of most Americans. During the Schiavo incident, I remember scads of coworkers and friends that disagreed with the GOP and felt deeply embarrassed by all the sentimental who-ha that the Republican leadership trotted out.

Ironically, I think the real lesson that the GOP taught America, with respect to Schiavo, was that we don't want politicians barging in from on high no matter WHO is doing it - GOP right-to-life'ers or liberal death panels.
August 14, 2009 9:21 AM
How does the death penalty factor into this? Isn't that essentially government deciding whether or not a person gets to live? Is it Democrats or Republicans who typically support the death penalty?

As I hear it (not sure if it's true or not), the law works in such a way that it costs a state more money to execute someone than it does to keep them alive in prison. I agree that the idea of government having a financial incentive to let me die is troubling at best, but if things were set up such that this incentive were removed from the equation, I don't think I'd worry nearly as much.

August 14, 2009 9:40 AM
As I understand it, it does cost more to execute a murderer than to leave them in prison for life. But that's only because of the endless death-penalty appeals at massive cost to the state, which usually has to pay for both sides. This is fairly new; up until, oh, the 1960s, it was probably far cheaper to execute someone than to imprison them for life.

In the case of prisoners specifically, I don't really have a problem with this. The only argument I can see in favor of life imprisonment is the possibility that later evidence down the line might exonerate them, which does happen occasionally. But with modern DNA and crime labs, that's going to become more rare.

You're forgetting one big difference though: convicted criminals are just that, convicted in a court of law. They have been legally determined to deserve what they get. Grandma in her hospital bed, on the other hand, has done nothing to deserve punishment.
August 14, 2009 10:01 AM
"Grandma in her hospital bed, on the other hand, has done nothing to deserve punishment."

Maybe she ate too many Big Macs? Too many cookies baked for the grandkids? Too much fried chicken. Not enough exercise.

Too many ways the panel could decide that she didn't take care of herself and deserves what's she's got...

But, I turn back to the Constitution. Where does it give the federal government the authority to get involved with any health issues at all? The argument never should be about the specific provisions in the bill, but rather should there be any bill at all.
August 14, 2009 10:20 AM
Terri was not on complex machinery. She had a feeding tube, which was not itself entirely necessary, because she could swallow on her own (as testified to by nurses) before its implementation. The court decisions upheld procedural details, not the strength of either side's arguments. Her husband showed his concern for her by keeping her family members away, restricting rehab/physical therapy care, darkening her room, and screaming at anyone who tried to do 'unnecessary' things like treat bladder infections (one of which nearly killed her before he discovered that what he'd done wasn't legal). Her parents offered to care for her themselves, at no further cost to the 'faithful husband' (with two b*stard children on the side), but he wanted her dead. Period. During NAZI times, starvation was rote procedure for eliminating undesirables. Micheal would fit right in.
August 14, 2009 1:05 PM
2 points

People rarely awake after a long vegetative state. However once they are brain dead they never awaken. I have absolutely no idea in which state Schiavo was in but if she was brain dead she was never ever ever going to awaken.

Court in Australia today ruled that a quadriplegic may end his life. I consider that very humane.
August 15, 2009 8:19 AM
Without going into great length as the writer of the article below did, I'll respond to one or two of the points made.

First, the author's statement about a matter of "trust". The author raises the question of whom to trust with the power of refusing treatment, either the government or the health insurance corporation. At present, in the case of those who have private for profit health insurance, it is the insurance corporation. In the proposal for reform the power would be either with the private or public insurer, depending on which the person chooses as insurer.

The proposal for reform calls for coverage of end-of-life counseling in cases when the the person insured chooses it in order to make a more informed decision. This what opponents of reform have twisted into meaning that the government would make the decision to "pull the plug on grandma".

It is also a matter of trust when deciding who to believe is telling the truth about what is being proposed as reform, either the for-profit-insurance corporation who stands to gain or lose so much or the president. A clue is seen when seeing the billions of dollars being spent by the health insurance and suppliers to fight any change in the status quo.

Some may argue we should not believe the president in view of the history of presidential lies which got us into wars that were both illegal and unnecessary. The current president should not be assumed to be lying because of previous cases.

Finally, the proposal to cover counseling sought by insurees has been removed from consideration due to the lies, misrepresentations, and scare tactics that have been put out by opponents of reform.
August 15, 2009 2:33 PM
But the point is, if you really get PO'ed at your insurance company, you can change to another one because of competition - or, insofar as you can't, it's caused by government distortion of the market (by linking health insurance to employment, which makes no rational sense.)

If there's a national health service and you have a problem with it, you are well and truly stuck with no escape.

Wherever we have one national vendor - post office, passenger railroad, etc. - it rots, just as all monopolies do. The Soviet Union had one national vendor for everything, is that what we want? It makes no sense.

The problem is competition. We need more, not less; and a government-run plan would quickly drive private competitors out of business either by legislative fiat or by government's unequal power of the purse.
August 15, 2009 9:39 PM
One thing is for sure, that instance was not a political issue. It was a personal moral battle between multiple people (mainly the husband and the parents). Politics rarely have anything to do with morality. They may use morality as reasons, but they are not bound to them. Their only reason for being is to capture the trust of people and will espouse whatever will keep the most people. Parties are a bad source of morality, and should stay out of such things. Of course they won't because when they wade in they get lots of press and get to hold their head in mock anguish. This goes for BOTH major political parties especially in this instance. This was a horrible point in time for all the /people/ involved and every single one of them was, I'm sure, conflicted about what the best thing to do was. Then the politics came in and, as usual, polarized everyone.

As for the larger issue of the article, the republican party has been quite vocal in how many bad things could happen if Obama gets his way. First there was the story of the woman with cancer from Canada who was refused treatment by their evil socialist medicine. Except it wasn't really cancer, it was a tumor which wasn't malignant, wasn't growing, and wasn't causing any problems. Sadly, I can't find any sources for that at the moment. After that was discovered the press stopped talking about that case. A week or two later, they had a new target, the UK's NHS (although their example of Stephen Hawking was a rather poor choice). But everyone in the UK is defending their system with much the same message as Canadians, "It's not perfect, but it's really good."

Now that it has been pointed out that Stephen Hawking is actually from the UK, and he has said that the NHS saved his life, there are no examples of a country with these "death panels" who kill just because it's too expensive. Typically, the organizations that set up the rules are concerned with the medical usefulness of a procedure do not consider the cost. Also, I don't think people review each and every case to try to deny people coverage... it's simply a set of things which are covered and a set of things which are not. If you want something done which is not covered, you or your doctor can request it as a special case. I assume this is where the "death panels" come into play. Depending on how this stuff is set up, they could be required to ignore the cost and focus only on the medical stuff... but like pretty much everything else in the US it could also be politicized by parties for their own political maneuverings, but the point is to improve the quality of life, not prove who's right and who's wrong.

The republican party shouldn't be wasting their time with this "Obama is a baby killer and this idea is evil" message. Instead they should take this as an opportunity to take a look at the health system in the US and provide a reasonable alternative. Not just work to minimize Obama's plan or put loopholes, but actually look at the current system's flaws and Obama's plan's flaws, think very hard about it and come up with something reasonable because what you have now doesn't work for a huge number of people by all metrics I've seen. As far as I can tell there are two underlying reasons the republican party is working so hard to turn people against Obama's plan:

1) The Democrats, Lieberals, and socialist-Communists must be stopped!!!
2) They're getting a lot of money from the medical ghouls who feed off of the suffering in the current system.

Of course, one of the Democratic party's reasons, "Obama, Obama, Obama," isn't a very good reason either (this is why political parties are stupid and immoral). The discussion shouldn't be about party affiliations. It shouldn't be about one party's past stance against another party's past stance and which was right and which was wrong. It should be about a broken health care system and how to help people. Obama's plan might do that, there are plenty of good models for him to follow and I see no reason why something like what he is proposing (in general, since I don't know the details) couldn't help a lot of people in the US that need it.
August 16, 2009 1:49 PM
As an example of one of the problems in the Canadian system, there was a case ... I think it was special schooling for autistic children. The province didn't want to pay for the special schooling as part of the health care. The schooling was going to require one teacher for just a couple of kids and was going to cost the province a lot of money. The province declined to provide the service even though it had been shown to improve the kids and get them functioning in the world better. This was a pretty big debate in Canada. It wasn't medically necessary, but would give these kids a shot at something resembling a normal life. And there are a lot of autistic kids so it would be expensive and everyone without autistic kids would have to share that cost. I think the case may have gone to court, but I'm not sure if it ruled or if the province backed down and agreed.

Another example was some new super expensive drug something like $2k per shot every month or twice a month for some condition for the rest of their lives. IIRC there was a much cheaper alternative which they had been using before which didn't work as well. That one ignited some debate due to the very high cost. Some politicians and pundits said it shouldn't be allowed because it was excessively expensive. Of course, it was allowed and it wasn't really ever in doubt that it would be allowed.

Both these incidents happened some time ago so I'm not entirely sure about the details. But, in Canada, I've never heard of a necessary treatment being denied simply because it's expensive and certainly not a treatment to prevent someone from dying! Death panels, indeed. Stupid hyperbole that does nothing but inflame the outrage of believers and does nothing to actually help the situation.
August 16, 2009 3:44 PM

talked about the New Zealand system, saying:

The drug costs so much that New Zealand's health care system refused to pay for it. Women wanted it so badly that the current government ran for office on a platform of paying for the drug; it's now approved. Good for democracy, not so good for the budget.


talks about delays in getting expensive new treatments approved in Britain.

There are good and bad stories all over. Neither side seems to be willing to admit that their favored plan will have defects. It would be better to admit that their plan is imperfect and ask the other side to suggest ways to make it better instead of demonizing the other side, but that would require actual leadership and statesmanship, commodities which appear to be in short supply.
August 16, 2009 3:53 PM
It's sad to say that so many people do not have access to medical care because the are uninsured or can not afford out of pocket expenses and yet medicaid/medicare is spending over $345 billion to care for those who have passed their prime and whose medical care will not cure their ailment but only prolong their misery.

Some people choose not to go through such painful medical treatment if is not going to get them better. Art Buchwald, the famous newspaper humorist chose not to go through painful medical treatment when he had reached 80 and his kidneys were all failing and the treatments were not going to make him better. I have heard that being hoooked up to kidney dialysis is not a pleasant experience. Art Buchwald chose to die in peace.
America can not compete with countries that do not have such expensive medical plans when our companies are spending so much to provide expensive medical insurance for their employees. A company will set up business in countries where they do not have such huge overcosts.
The government can not keep on printing money or spending money that it does not have. The government has to start doing some saving.
If the aim of the republican party is to distort information and to equate medical couseling with euthenasia, then the republican party should well understand that if Obama fails,(as Rush Limbaugh so wishes) the whole country fails. Bush spent to close to one trillion dollars fighting unneccessary war brought about by misinformation. America can not keep on spending forever.
When it comes to deciding who needs medical care, private insurance companies have been taking premuims from people and dropping them like lead when they need it the most or in some cases they have been increasing premiums to the extent that the victim can not even afford them when they need medical care the most. The words the insurance companies use is that they are in business to make money and they can not keep high risk cases.
Programs that were initially set up by non-profit agencies to provide medical care to third world countries, are now providing medical care to needy Americans whilst the Amwerican government in turn is spending over $345 billion to keep old folks alive by hooking them to machines. No one can live forever. We will all die one day. It's about time we all stop trying to live forever and think about the little boys and girls who die or whose lives are being ruined because their parents could not afford to pay for medical care. The $345 billion can be used to insure these people instead of being used on the "living dead".
August 18, 2009 11:14 AM
If you heard Terri Shiavo's Mother and Father and siblings ever interviewed, you would never believe she was an empty shell. I saw on videos myself Terri happily responding to stimuli. Her so called husband could have put her in the shape she was in. He refused her therapy that might could have helped her communicate. I would suggest people not judge without looking more in to the case. What did he have to lose by divorcing her and letting her parents care for her as they wanted? He did not want her to get any better. Her whole story is horrific. What was he afraid of?
August 19, 2009 8:00 AM
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