At the end of this month, Terri Schiavo will be ten years dead. But she is far from forgotten. Everyone reading these words knows the story, and everyone has an opinion. What began in 1990 as a private tragedy—a vivacious young woman stricken in the prime of life with a severe cognitive disability—became a source of profound cultural division, as likely to spark debate today as when the case first broke into the public’s consciousness.
Why has her story remained so potent? Part of it has to do with the high-profile and vituperative legal and public-relations battle between Terri’s husband, Michael, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Still, most heated public controversies run their course and fade into history. But not this one. Since her death, Terri has become a symbol of deep-seated conflicts in our country about the nature of human life and what role we have in controlling it—or ending it.
Even though Terri’s case had nothing to do with abortion, she quickly became mired in the “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” argument. True, abortion opponents strongly supported the Schindlers’ effort. But they were not alone in defending Terri’s life. For example, the disability rights movement—generally secular, distinctly liberal in political outlook, and hardly pro-life on the abortion issue—also vociferously opposed Terri’s dehydration (which precipitated her death). So did some progressives, like Jesse Jackson.
But the political diversity of Terri’s supporters has been ignored or downplayed in most media stories—and from the beginning. The New York Times, for instance, barely mentioned Terri’s name until Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry appeared on the scene. Under the front-page headline “Victory in Florida Feeding Case Emboldens the Religions Right,” the paper reported forebodingly that Terri’s socially conservative supporters intended to harness public sympathy to “chip away at court rulings allowing abortion and banning organized prayer in schools and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.”
Utter drivel, but once the story settled into a theocrats-versus-rationalists contest, people divided into their usual ideological corners, and most remain there to this day. In fact, the left and the mainstream media are now using Terri's case as a cudgel with which to damage the presidential chances of Republican Jeb Bush–who, as governor of Florida, sided strongly with the Schindlers.
The recourse to her case in electoral politics wouldn’t happen if it didn’t invoke current disputes over the meaning of life and death. Supporters of Terri’s parents believe in the equality and sanctity of life, an ethic under which Terri remained infinitely precious regardless of her impairments. In this view, whether she was conscious or not didn’t matter. Her parents should have been allowed to care for her for as long as she lived.
Those who support Michael’s successful effort to remove her feeding tube—including most of those in the bioethics movement—tend to adhere to the “quality of life” ethic that perceives some lives as not worth living. This is usually framed as a question of personal autonomy—for example, as the “right to die.” But behind that rationale lingers a profound loathing or disregard for impaired human life—to the point that some denigrated Terri as not worth the cost of care, while others opined that she should be lethally injected or that her organs should have been available for transplantation.
Debates over the sexual revolution and the meaning of marriage also became entangled in opinions about Terri’s fate. In the media, Michael is often identified simply as Terri’s “husband” who pursued a difficult course because that is what she would have wanted. But it wasn’t nearly that simple. Prior to petitioning the court to remove Terri’s feeding tube, Michael began cohabiting with another woman with whom he had sired two children.
Those who supported Michael often shrugged off his adulterous involvement as an understandable part of the process of “moving on.” In contrast, those who opposed Terri’s dehydration believed that, by starting another family, Michael had effectively abandoned his marriage—meaning that he should have had no part in deciding Terri’s fate.
Polls tend to show public support for the fatal outcome. But I don’t sense any peace about it. Indeed, I think our inner voices, the part of us that never lies, may harbor lingering doubts. Perhaps the reason we still react so viscerally to Terri Schiavo—why she remains an open cultural sore—is that our consciences are haunted by the enduring memory of her smiling face.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patient’s Rights Council.