Media Goofed On Schiavo Facts; Disability Message Not
Commentary by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
October 21, 2003
SPOKANE, WASHINGTON--Tuesday's headlines said it all -- all wrong, that is:
"Hospital resumes coma patients food" (Associated Press via CNN News),
"Schiavo Back On Life Support" (Tampa Tribune).
The U.S. media, which virtually ignored Terri Schiavo's case until she began to starve to death last week, has shown how wrong news services can be.
Whether one frames the issue as Terri's "right to live" or her "right to die", the American media simply failed to give readers the correct information so they could make up their own minds.
Take the first headline, for instance. Several news agencies have referred to Terri as being in a coma or being comatose, which suggests that she is unconscious. The doctors involved in her case have never said Terri is in a coma. While several doctors testified that she is in a "persistent vegetative state" -- which is not the same as a coma -- the Schindlers claim to have affidavits from many more doctors saying she is not "vegetative", and that rehabilitation should be tried to see if she can recover some of the function she has lost.
While there will always be debate over what Terri's brain experiences, the fact is that her brain regulates all of her bodily functions on its own, except allowing her to eat by mouth.
The next headline, which contained language similar to others over the last several days, claims that Terri is being kept alive by "life support". This presents readers with images of a person on a ventilator or other machine, and improperly takes readers into the realm of "heroic measures".
The fact is Terri is being given nourishment and water through a feeding tube installed through her stomach wall. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country receive their food and water this way for years.
At the same time that the media has gotten important facts wrong, it has also failed to look into circumstances that ought to have raised the eyebrows of any respectable journalist.
Why, for example, did Mr. Schiavo place his 30-something wife in a hospice when doctors said she could easily live into her 50s? Why not a nursing home or her own home? Hospices ordinarily only accept people in the terminal stages of an illness with less than six months expected to live. Did the fact that an exception was made at this hospice have anything to do with the fact that Mr. Schiavo's attorney was on its board?
For years, disability rights advocates have been pointing out these irregularities. Why have reporters missed them?
How did Terri's story turn into a "right to die" debate, lumped in with the anti-abortion debate?
As Terri's situation gained national attention, why were the messages of disability advocates largely unheard?
I don't know.
What is clear is that our role -- as disability rights advocates -- to educate lawmakers and the journalists who influence public opinion and public policy is more crucial than ever.
We are horrified that thousands of people with certain disabilities are judged 'better off dead'. We are frustrated that the cost of health care is rising at the same time that "assisted suicide" is gaining popularity and legal approval.
Terri's reprieve this week may or may not be a temporary one. It is likely we will have to rally again in the near future to keep her husband and the courts from starving her. Those who oppose her right to continue living may be better organized next time.
Most importantly, however, we must continue to speak out and work with our state and local governments, and to educate others.
The fact is, any of us could be in Terri's situation in a heartbeat.
The world needs to hear our voices.