People As Political Props: Terri Schiavo

by Laurie D. T. Mann
Written in about 1999

People frequently use other people as props. This is most common in families - think of the way most parents dress up and show off their kids. This is a fairly innocent use of people as props. It does no harm to the child to dress the cute six month old baby as a Halloween pumpkin, and, meanwhile, the parents get "Oooh isn't she cute?" from their friends and neighbors. This can become more malevolent over time - did little Jon Benet Ramsey really enjoy being made up, gowned, and paraded at baby beauty pagents? We'll never know.

Or think of the way some older men acquire younger girlfriends or trophy wives. The way some women live through their husbands and children. There are times when people use other people for their own needs rather than letting others stand on their own.

But, increasingly, people use others as political props. The "props" tend to be people who cannot stand on their own. It tends to be done most often to women who are unable to speak for themselves. Twenty-five years ago, it was Karen Ann Quinlan. And, today, it's Terri Schiavo.

Terri Schiavo is being used. She became brain dead in 1990. Brain scans show that the portion of her brain that governs consciousness has been nonexistent for years. It is a sick parody to photograph a brain dead person with an autonomic reflex to light and then treat her as if she was conscious. She is being anthropomorphized the way a person talks to a dog and asks "Oh does Fido want a dog biscuit?" when the dog barks.

When people are so quick to jump up and down and talk about honoring the dignity of the individual, they have robbed Terri Schiavo of any "dignity" she may have had. What happened to Terri Schiavo is extemely sad, but no one can bring her back. She'll never talk to her family, get out of bed or do anything. She's being moved around like a puppet, and her family ought to be ashamed of themselves. People are using Terri to reflect their needs. Their need for her to be alive. She may be still breathing, but she isn't really alive.

People die, and it is fascinating to me that people who say they believe in religious teachings seem the most determined to force physical existence long after the brain had died. Terri died in 1990. It's a sad view, but a realistic view. All the tube feeding in the world isn't going to bring her back.

Some day, I don't want to be a breathing husk in a hospital bed. I signed an organ donor card in 1978 and have discussed living will issues with my husband. Today, even though I'm middled aged and in reasonable health, I am filling out a lengthy living will. I absolutely do not want to exist indefinitely in a kind of "Nazgul" state - neither living nor dead. If I'm seriously injured, sure, use the heroic mesures if I have a chance, but don't keep the feeding tube going years after all real chances have gone.

I hope that any disabled people who may be reading this essay aren't reading this essay as an anti-disabled people piece. If you are reading this piece, you are conscious, you are capable of reading and comprehending the world around you. After Christopher Reeve was so tragically injured back in 1995, he was understandably devastated by his condition. But his wife Dana turned to him and said, "You're still you." That acceptance made a huge difference to his acceptance of himself after his accident. He understood precisely what happened to him. Terri Schiavo is incapable of understanding what has happened to her.

Terri Schiavo isn't the person who collapsed in 1990. To make Terri a symbol of all disabled people is just wrong. Simplistic and wrong in every way. To keep Terri breathing does not celebrate or honor life. It means that people cannot comprehend the difference between living and breathing. I don't want to be in a state where I'm merely breathing. And I would hope all adults would make the same point by thinking about and signing a Living Will and giving a trusted friend or family member a durable power of attorney.

Technical Information on Brain Death