Voices

Media malpractice

The public never learned about Terri Schiavo's true condition

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

When Terri Schiavo died on March 31 from the starvation and dehydration ordered by a variety of public officials, it was hard to feel an emotion other than angry frustration. How could justice have been defeated so bluntly at every single turn in the road?

So last week I sat down with David Gibbs, the attorney who represented Terri Schiavo's parents in their fruitless quest to have her life preserved, to ask him what had gone so wrong. "What single thing," I inquired, "do you wish might have been done differently?"

"I wish," Mr. Gibbs said simply, "that we'd been able to show the American public how very alive Terri was."

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Acknowledging the severity of the brain damage Mrs. Schiavo had suffered and the limits that imposed, Mr. Gibbs still insisted that he had come to know his clients' daughter as a person. "There was a dynamic to her. She jabbered. She complained when she was in pain. She fussed at the staff. She laughed when her mother came in, and she cried when her mother left. She teased. Her father, Bob Schindler, would come in with his mustache and beard, and she would-in her own way-play with him about how they tickled her."

All those human details were critical to demonstrate to the public, Mr. Gibbs insists, because of the determination of Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, to portray her not just as brain damaged, but as brain dead.

To be sure, much of the public debate in Mrs. Schiavo's final weeks tended to focus on whether she would feel discomfort and even pain during the 13 days after her feeding (and watering) tube was withdrawn. Outsiders wanted to know details of her physical condition. Mr. Gibbs was there repeatedly in those last days and hours, and says it was not a pretty thing. Terri's skin was stretched and dry; her lips and tongue were parched. "We killed her in a very barbaric manner," Mr. Gibbs charges. "She was feeling pain. There was an imploring look in her eyes. It was as if she were saying to me: 'I'm trusting you; can't you do something?'"

But Mr. Gibbs doesn't focus on Terri Schiavo's late-stage condition. He keeps returning to a collective failure much earlier to dramatize what he calls the "liveliness" of Terri's life-even in the context of her profound disability. You can tell that Mr. Gibbs takes that failure personally. His inability to convey to the American public the personality of Terri Schiavo clearly weighs more heavily on him than any legal mistakes he may have made.

As he visited her almost every day in her final months, Mr. Gibbs says he would stand on one side of Terri's bed and encourage her: "You are a fortunate woman," he would tell her. "You have a mother and a father who love you very much." Then he would move to the foot of the bed, and then to the other side, watching Terri roll over to follow his movement and seeing her eyes find him again as if asking him to continue the conversation.

But America-by careful design-never saw that warm and human exchange. More critical even than the various courts' final rulings that her feeding tube be withdrawn was their previous determination that any personal exposure to Terri would be limited to a tiny group of professional experts. No jury of peers got to hear or see Terri face to face. News reporters were officially excluded. The judges themselves never met or saw her-in spite of Mr. Gibbs's pleading that they do so. "She was altogether capable of coming to their courtrooms in a wheelchair," he insists now. "They turned down all my efforts to make that happen."

As a newsman, I understand Mr. Gibbs' sense of failure-for I share it painfully. Why couldn't we in the media have done our job more diligently? Why couldn't we have increased the wattage of our searchlight, forcing Michael Schiavo and his complicit judges to let the public see what Terri Schiavo's situation really was? If city and county councils have to operate with sunshine laws, why not doctors and judges?

But my point right here is not to keep piling on the judges in Terri Schiavo's case-wrong as I think they were. It's to acknowledge that some of us in other fields may also have let down the public simply by not pursuing this story hard enough in its early stages. I'm haunted with the sense that had we done so, the judges' late-stage misbehavior might have been a lot less possible.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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