As Terri Schiavo lay dying, her organs slowly mummifying from the effects of prolonged, court-ordered dehydration and starvation, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal from her parents that might have saved her life. Her parents argued that Schiavo's right to due process under the law had been denied, a claim summarily rejected -- without even the pretense of a full hearing -- by a District Court and upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Less than one week later, however, the Supreme Court sat in rapt attention as attorneys argued a very different life and death case, this one involving a convicted rapist and murderer whose case found its way to the high court because he is a non-citizen, and who, it is alleged, had been denied full and adequate access to diplomats from his home country when he was criminally charged.
In both cases, lower courts had already ordered the termination of life -- in the case of Terri Schiavo, by refusing her food and water on the basis of a Florida state court ruling; and in the case of Jose Ernesto Medellin, by the judgment of a Texas jury that he was guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" of the rape and murder of two teenage girls in 1992.
So, why did the Court give so much more deference to Medellin's claims than to Schiavo's? It's hard to escape the conclusion that it is because many people -- including the judges who have considered her case -- believe that Terry Schiavo's disabilities render her no longer fully human. And in this judgment the medical establishment is fully complicit. The very term used to describe Schiavo's condition -- persistent vegetative state -- conjures up images of a subhuman, sub-animal life form. As one health care professional wrote me after hearing me on television describe the pain Schiavo might suffer as she slowly dehydrated to death, "If you touch a venus fly trap plant (a stimuli) it will immediately close its petals (a reaction). That doesn't mean it feels or cognizes [sic] that there is a fly that has landed." Few public commentators have been as blunt, but the sentiment seeps through nonetheless in the words we choose to describe Schiavo's state.
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