The Blog

Life, Death, and Silence

Why the media elites won't tell the full story on Terri's prognosis and Michael Schiavo.

6:00 AM, Oct 31, 2003 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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FOR MONTHS, as the Terri Schiavo case roiled much of the country, the establishment media all but ignored the story. But then, in the midst of her dying by dehydration, the Florida Legislature passed "Terri's Law," authorizing Governor Jeb Bush to place a moratorium on the dehydration deaths of certain cognitively disabled patients, including Terri. When that happened, the media blackout transformed into media frenzy.

It soon became quite clear, however, that increased media attention was not synonymous with increased dissemination of relevant facts. For despite carpet coverage of the controversy in establishment outlets, the full story still isn't being told for the simple reason that most media refuse to report it.

What are these ignored facts?

(1) Michael Schiavo has lived with his fiancé for nearly eight years and has sired two children by her. In the years since Terri's devastating disability, Schiavo has gone on with his life, fallen in love with another woman, and started a family. Few would hold this against him--if he would turn Terri's care over to her parents. Instead, Schiavo insists that he should retain all the rights of a husband--including inheritance and retention of marital property--as he simultaneously enjoys connubial bliss and sweet domesticity with his fiancé.

By siring two children with another woman, Michael effectively estranged himself from his marriage. Surely, thinking people would want to know this fact. Yet Schiavo's new family is consistently unmentioned. Instead, he is almost always depicted simply as a "husband" struggling against in-laws and right-to-lifers to fulfill his wife's stated desire to die.

The entire episode is beginning to take on the feel of a conspiracy of silence. Consider the following very partial list:

Newsweek's extensive report on the story ("Who Has the Right to Die" by Arian Campo-Flores, November 3, 2003) laudably mentioned both sides of many of the controversies in the case--indeed more than most other stories--but significantly omitted Schiavo's new family.

Similarly, in the New York Times's many recent articles, opinion columns, and in its editorial against Terri's Law, Schiavo's extracurricular activities were completely ignored. It's October 23 editorial merely stated:

Michael Schiavo, her husband and legal guardian, went to court seeking to cut off the feeding tube that was keeping her alive. He testified that Ms. Schiavo, who did not have a living will, would not have wanted the feeding to continue.

Sounds reasonable. But imagine how different readers' impression of the case would be if the editorial had included the total context, by stating, "Michael Schiavo, who remains legally married to Ms. Schiavo but has sired two children with his fiancé, went to court seeking to cut off the feeding tube."

The Christian Science Monitor editorialized on October 29 that challenges to spousal decisions in these matters by other family members "could lead to chaos." Would the editors have been able to express that opinion with a straight face if they had included the facts about Schiavo's new life?

Could it be that the reporters and editors who are writing and editing these pieces don't know Schiavo has established a new family? That's hard to believe. Indeed, in at least in one case I know the reporter knew the story because I told it to him and he still failed to report it (or perhaps, the editor removed it from his final copy).

Manuel Roig-Franzia interviewed me for a story on Jeb Bush's ordering Terri's food and water restored. We spoke at some length during which I made a point of emphasizing Schiavo's current domestic circumstances. Yet, when his front page story appeared (including a brief quote from me), there was no mention of these facts, despite their clear relevance to the following assertion:

Terri Schiavo left no written instructions, but her husband testified that she told him she would not want to live in a vegetative state. The courts have been clear, legal experts said, that spouses have the authority to make decisions in such cases.

But the real issue is whether estranged spouses have the authority. In this case, shouldn't that be the pertinent point?

(2) Many medical experts believe Terri can be improved. Most media reports depict the medical prognosis for Terri as being settled fact. Thus, stories have described her as "comatose," which she is not, and vegetative, which remains a matter of dispute despite courts ruling otherwise.