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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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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 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.