Hentoff: Press guilty of journalistic malpractice in Schiavo case


Nat Hentoff, civil libertarian and columnist for the Village Voice, is weighing in on media coverage of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. He has pronounced the media guilty of "journalistic malpractice", mischaracterizing her condition and uncritically siding with her husband, who wishes her dead. And he says that the support for her cause from disabled-rights groups has gone unreported in the mainstream media:

For 13 years, Terri Schiavo has not been able to speak for herself. But she is not brain-dead, not in a comatose state, not terminal, and not connected to a respirator. If the feeding tube is removed, she will starve to death. Whatever she may or may not have said, did she consider food and water "artificial means?"
The media continually report that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state, and a number of neurologists and bioethicists have more than implied to the press that "persistent" is actually synonymous with "permanent." This is not true, as I shall factually demonstrate in upcoming columns. I will also provide statements from neurologists who say that if Terri were given the proper therapy—denied to her by her husband and guardian after he decided therapy was becoming too expensive despite $750,000 from a malpractice suit—she could learn to eat by herself and become more responsive. ...

In all the stories on Terri Schiavo and her parents' determined efforts to save her life, the media continually report that the Florida legislature intervened because of many thousands of calls, letters, and e-mails from the Christian right and pro-lifers. Those groups and individuals are indeed a major factor in rousing support to prevent Terri from being starved to death. But among the many others who sent urgent messages are disabled Americans and their organizations.

Except for the op-ed page article by Stephen Drake of the Not Dead Yet organization in the October 29 Los Angeles Times ("Disabled Are Fearful: Who Will Be Next?") and a letter in the October 24 New York Times, I have seen hardly any mention in the press of the deeply concerned voices of the disabled, many of whom, in their own lives, have survived being terminated by bioethicists and other physicians who strongly believe that certain lives are not worth living. The numbers of these "new priesthoods of death," as I call them, are increasing.

Hentoff promises more articles on this topic in days to come, and points to this article in the Weekly Standard by Wesley J. Smith, who has written a book on PVS patients, challenging the notion that death by starvation would be painless. Smith tells us about one patient who survived having a feeding tube removed and recovered from PVS:

At age 33, Kate Adamson collapsed from a devastating and incapacitating stroke. She was utterly unresponsive and was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). At the urging of doctors, who believed she would never get better, her nourishment was stopped. But midway through the dehydration process, she began to show subtle signs of comprehension, so her food and water were restored. ...

In preparation for this article, I contacted Adamson for more details about the torture she experienced while being dehydrated. She told me about having been operated upon (to have her feeding tube inserted in her abdomen) with inadequate anesthesia when doctors believed she was unconscious. Unbelievably, she described being deprived of food and water as "far worse" than experiencing the pain of abdominal surgery, telling me:

The agony of going without food was a constant pain that lasted not several hours like my operation did, but several days. You have to endure the physical pain and on top of that you have to endure the emotional pain. Your whole body cries out, "Feed me. I am alive and a person, don't let me die, for God's Sake! Somebody feed me."

But what about the thirst, I asked:

I craved anything to drink. Anything. I obsessively visualized drinking from a huge bottle of orange Gatorade. And I hate orange Gatorade. I did receive lemon flavored mouth swabs to alleviate dryness but they did nothing to slack my desperate thirst.

Finally, here is the blog of a Catholic priest who went to Florida recently to assist the family and the family's priest -- thoughtful, day-to-day coverage of her condition, media coverage, and the legal wranglings.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 12, 2003 8:08 PM.

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