Better Dead Than . . .

Better Dead Than . . .

Much of the mainstream media coverage of Terri's ordeal makes Middle America believe that she would be "better off dead."
photo of Terri Schiavo
Photo of Terri Schiavo as a young woman

by W. Carol Cleigh

Tuesday, with Terri Schiavo's life hanging from an increasingly slender thread, a friend and I were discussing the case. She said, "if I were really bad off and there was no hope of recovery and I were a financial burden to my family, then I'd rather be dead." I asked, "Are you sure?" Then added, "In today's world, it is dangerous to make such statements unless you are really certain that you'd rather be dead than disabled."

And that is the heart of the matter. When is someone "better off dead?"

Terri gets her food and water through a feeding tube and uses a wheelchair for mobility. She is not on life support and she is not dying. Yet most of the media has made this a "right to die" case.

Wednesday, I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room, believing that Terri was once more being fed, when the case came up again. A snippy older woman said, "She's brain dead, what they're doing now is just wrong." I asked if she'd seen the videotape of Terri. She replied, "I'm from Florida, I should know!" I agreed that she indeed should know. I added that it was too bad she didn't -- and that biased and inaccurate reporting was one of the worst aspects of this case.

Far too many Americans get their information from TV, where issues and lives are reduced to sound bites. People make up their minds on complex issues instantly. Like their breakfast, it is neatly packaged and easy to swallow. Prejudices are often reinforced rather than challenged. Inaccurate Information goes around the globe. Even if later the media admits the information is wrong, it is too late to correct first impressions.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of Terri's ordeal makes Middle America believe that she would be "better off dead."

The videotape that clearly shows Terri responding to her mother signed her death warrant in some people's minds. When I mentioned the videotape in the waiting room, an older man said, "Did you see how bad she looked? I would never want to live like that!" No Clark Gable himself, he still believed in "better dead than disabled-looking."

No one I've talked to locally was aware of the conflict of interest in Terri's legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, who is still legally her husband. Several asked why her husband would want her dead if it was not "better" for her. I listed for them facts of the case: that Michael stands to inherit Terri's money, that his new "wife" wants to marry in the Catholic Church but cannot unless Terri dies, that we have only his word that Terri said she would want to die rather than have a feeding tube. Why hasn't the media reported this? they ask. Why indeed?

Several things have come clear:

Most Americans strongly believe in "better dead than disabled." They do not want to be confused by facts. Media, complicit, relentlessly reinforce this mantra of the "right to die" movement. Whether it's our unique bodies they object to or the devices (like feeding tubes) that some of us use every day, or whether they simply see disability as social death,they make it plain that we would be "better off" dead.

Clearly, one of the main tasks of the disability rights nation is to fight this perception tooth and nail wherever it shows its evil self.

As author Wesley Smith has said, it is far easier to kill in darkness than in the light of day. The intense pressure surrounding Terri's case has caused a faint glimmer of light to penetrate to where so many of our people have died. We must fight -- and fight hard -- to make sure the lights remain on. And to make them shine ever more brightly, spotlighting our deaths at the hands of those who believe "better dead than disabled."

We must work to pass laws that will strictly and severely limit a guardian's "right" to decide that anyone is "better off dead" -- no matter what their condition is. Those laws must require that every effort be made to learn their current wishes -- efforts including assistive communcation devices (which Terri has never been allowed) before even a written advance directive is used. Many disabled people have had to disavow statements like the one my friend made on Tuesday. The word of a "guardian" who has several obvious conflicts of interest must never again create a judicial lynching.

Finally, we must help America and the world to renounce all "better dead than..." ideologies. The Twentieth Century should have taught us, if preceding centuries did not, that when we make anyone "better off" dead that we tread the road to genocide -- and court our own destruction as well.

W. Carol Cleigh is a freelance writer and an activist.

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