The Magazine

The Case Heard Round the Web

From the April 4, 2005 issue: How Terri Schiavo became a household name.

Apr 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 27 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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THE ARGUMENTS OVER THE FATE of Terri Schiavo have sowed distrust among the courts and the political branches of government, and forced a state legislature, a popular governor, both houses of Congress, and the president of the United States into tight, uncomfortable political corners. The pending death-by-dehydration of this disabled, 41-year-old Clearwater, Florida, woman--thanks to a court order sought by her husband--has at the same time become a media event of epic proportion.

The big question is why. Why did this story, of all stories, reach such a critical mass; why did Terri Schiavo, of all people, ignite such a deep, visceral emotional response in so many of her fellow citizens; why have so many people devoted so much energy and commitment to this case--some utterly intent upon keeping her alive, others adamantly believing she should be left to die as quickly as possible?

After all, hers is hardly the first "food and fluids" case to have bitterly divided a family, and it won't be the last. Nor is it at all uncommon in America for patients who are Terri's age and younger to be deprived of food and water so that they will die, even when there is doubt about what they would choose in such circumstances, and even though they are neither brain dead nor terminally ill.

Terri's putative husband (he started a new family in the mid-1990s) isn't the first spouse to fight in court with in-laws over the removal of a feeding tube. Two cases in the 1990s were strikingly similar, albeit the courts ruled in favor of life. Both Michael Martin of Michigan and Robert Wendland of California were unquestionably conscious when their wives fought nasty, protracted court battles through trial, appeal, and final decision by state supreme courts to see them die. Michael Martin had allegedly expressed a desire to live to an examining doctor using a facilitated communication device; Robert Wendland could roll a wheelchair down a hospital corridor. Both cases made the news, yet neither consumed the entire country or caused the deep societal divisions that Terri's case has generated.

This controversy hit the stratosphere, I believe, because of one simple but very powerful innovation: the Internet. When the Michael Martin and Robert Wendland families fought almost identical battles in the 1990s, the Internet, especially as a source of news, was still in its infancy. It was difficult to spread facts or perspectives that the mainstream media did not want to present--and the reporting of those cases was as skewed and one-sided in favor of death as has been the coverage of Terri Schiavo.

Moreover, and I think more important, the guardian-spouses maintained tight control over the images of their husbands. Almost every contemporary picture of Robert Wendland and Michael Martin that was made public was one that Mary Martin and Rose Wendland's lawyers wanted to be seen. While the parents were telling the world that their sons were responsive and aware, the approved photographs and videos generally depicted them as nonresponsive. Indeed, when despite this tight control a San Francisco television program managed to air an "unapproved" video that showed Wendland taking pegs from a board and replacing them during a therapy session, lawyers for Lodi Memorial Hospital--whose spokeswoman had claimed incorrectly that Robert was as good as comatose--sought (unsuccessfully) to have a gag order imposed in the case.

By the time the Schiavo litigation came along, the Internet was booming and becoming ever more sophisticated. Ordinary users had the technical means to view videos uploaded onto websites. Knowing that cases such as these are often won and lost in the sphere of public relations, Terri's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, and their supporters created a website, terrisfight.org, which carried news of the case, copies of court documents, the story of Terri's life, and most crucially, powerful videos of Terri Schiavo apparently reacting to the world around her.

In one scene, Terri is asked by a doctor to open her eyes. For a moment; nothing. Then, Terri's eyes flutter and she opens them. She seems to be so eager to please--and this really touched my heart when I first saw it--that she opens her eyes so wide her forehead wrinkles.

In another scene, Terri's mother comes into the room. She talks happily to her daughter, "Hi! Hi, it's Mommy. How are you?" As Mary Schindler adjusts Terri on the bed, it sure looks as if she recognizes her mother, and she smiles happily. In a third scene Terri appears to respond happily when music is turned on. And so it goes.

These videos made all of the difference. Rather than being an abstract "vegetable" (a truly loathsome word to describe any human being), Terri came to be seen as a real person, obviously alive, and fully human. Michael Schiavo's supporters and proponents of Terri's dehydration within the bioethics community stomped and fussed, insisting that the appearance of interactivity in the videos were actually just reflexes. But many viewers saw these complaints as being akin to the cheating husband who tells his wife after she has caught him in flagrante delicto: "Who are you going to believe--me, or your lying eyes?" The videos told a different story than that of a supposedly vegetative woman unable to interact with others. And for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, the real Terri came out of the shadows, a sub-human no more.

The ability of supporters of Terri's life to distribute underreported information via the Internet enabled the Schiavo drama to reach an international stage. Terri's supporters were outraged when the mainstream media first downplayed the story entirely, and then, when the case finally demanded front-page coverage, cherry-picked facts to emphasize those aspects that favored Michael. For example, the New York Times routinely omitted what many saw as an acutely relevant fact about Terri's husband in deciding whether he or her parents should control her care: Michael has started a new family with his "fiancée," with whom he has two children. Under any ordinary understanding of the facts, that constitutes marital abandonment.

When I wrote a series of stories on the Schiavo case for The Daily Standard at weeklystandard.com in late 2003 and early 2004, many focusing on facts and arguments that I believed were being, shall we say, "overlooked" by the elite press, I witnessed the power of Internet information distribution. To my great gratification, my articles were passed from computer to computer, finding their way into readers' hands all over the world. Indeed, this is the first non-Internet article I have written about Terri Schiavo in some time. Yet, in recent weeks, as her tragic story reached its unjust denouement, my old online articles continued to circulate widely, to an enormous online audience, thanks both to direct quotations and links from blogs. The contrast with my early days in the anti-euthanasia movement has been stunning.

Nor is my experience unique. Check out the blogosphere, and you will find stories and commentary on Terri multiplying beyond the ability of anyone to keep up. They, in turn, echo back to talk radio and coverage in more traditional media, to the point that even the New York Times acknowledged Michael Schiavo's marital complications.

Terri Schiavo's story is a tragedy, and, for many, an outrage. But it holds a glimmer of hope for those with views that have traditionally received short shrift in the media--a category that decidedly includes those fighting to reverse the presumption of death enshrined in all too many state laws covering cases like Terri Schiavo's. Thanks to the new online media, these cases will never again be one-sided.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His most recent book is the Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.