Varying Degrees of Disgust Pamela F. Hennessy



Varying Degrees of Disgust  


by Pamela F. Hennessy

In April of 2004, prosecutors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania laid first-degree murder charges against Kimberly Loebig for allegedly starving her disabled brother to death. Her brother, Scott Olsen, was an incapacitated young man who was made a ward to Loebig following a significant brain injury in 1996. When Mr. Olsen's 6' body was found, he weighed just over 60 pounds. Loebig now faces life in prison, or the death penalty, if found guilty.

In October of 2004, a Rialto, California woman by the name of Delores Johnson was sentenced to 29 years - to life in prison for the starvation death of her autistic brother, Eric Bland. Johnson received an additional sentence of 14 years for dependent abuse. Eric Bland, a 38 year old man, was only 70 pounds when police found him dead in his sister's home. Deputy District Attorney, Tristan Svare told the press: "To see a helpless, developmentally disabled man being starved to death - photos of him on his deathbed, sinking in his bed and his clothes hanging off him - it was like seeing a Holocaust victim."

Yet, in October of 2003, a simple gastric feeding tube was ordered by the courts to be removed from a disabled woman by the name of Terri Schiavo. Because of a mysterious anoxic brain injury in 1990, Ms. Schiavo is unable to care for herself independently. Because of an ongoing denial of rehabilitation by her husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo, her condition has not improved. She is not on life support as we know it. Rather, she relies only on a feeding tube to deliver life-sustaining nutrition and hydration. The removal of this delivered sustenance, without the appropriate therapies to restore Ms. Schiavo's ability to accept table food, will produce precisely the same outcomes as the Loebig and Johnson cases.

Terri's case has one thing the other two do not - a court order that mandates the removal of food and fluids. Because of that fact alone, outrage over her situation seems to be rather sporadic.

In November of 2003, Michael Schiavo, Terri's estranged husband and still guardian, told Larry King that a starvation and dehydration death was a "peaceful, natural and painless" way to die. Yet, in a published report titled "Life Cycles", we see that nothing could be further from the truth.

Citing a number of reputable physicians, Life Cycle's report on withholding food and fluids paints a macabre picture of senseless torture:

"Dry mucous membranes (mouth, nose throat and genital organs), Constipation, Impaction (buildup of stool in the body), severe abdominal cramping and bloating, nausea and vomiting, Electrolyte imbalances (salt and water problems in the blood and tissues), Arrhythmias (heart problems); myalgias and malaise (muscle pain and marked fatigue), Cough and shortness of breath, Severe depression and confusion, severe agitation and fear, delusions, Dry, cracked skin, Urinary, vaginal and bowel infection, Bronchitis and pneumonia, Blood in the bowel, stomach, kidney and lungs, kidney failure. General systemic collapse and death"

This begs the question: How is it that a court order - a simple cooperative of paper and ink - magically transforms the experience of dehydration and starvation into a 'peaceful' or 'painless' one? Let's consider some facts:

Though Terri Schiavo is dependent on others, she is not terminally ill and her overall health is comparatively good. In other words, she is not dying. Only a deliberate act of omission would cause her death.

Her husband has alleged that she is in a 'persistent vegetative state' and will never recover. Meanwhile, several physicians have testified or given sworn statements that this is not the case and, with appropriate therapies, her condition can improve.

Her husband also asserts that she has no awareness and will neither feel nor understand a death process of this type. However, Terri is prescribed pain medication for menses and occasional headaches. Clearly, she feels pain and can be made to suffer.

Finally, though her husband has testified that Terri did not want to remain alive by way of artificial life support, there is absolutely no testimony or evidence that she would have committed suicide by refusing sustenance in the case of a profound disability. Not permitting her the opportunity to live life without a feeding tube and then taking that very tube away in the pursuit of her death cannot easily be divorced from the concepts of suicide or homicide.

The Loebig and Johnson cases have sparked clear outrage within the public discourse as well as law enforcement. After all, what could possibly be more soulless or cowardly than harming people who cannot defend themselves? What could possibly be more cruel than causing someone to endure a prolonged and painful death? It's very easy to understand why the public is disgusted with such stories but it is also rather difficult to understand why the same sense of outrage has yet to be broadly applied to the case of Terri Schiavo. One explanation might be as simplistic as it is alarming: a judge said it was okay.

Some media outlets appear to subscribe to this school of thought. Many continue to claim that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state - a term which is meaningless and wholly dehumanizing. People don't change genus because of a disability. Rather, they become people living with a disability. Terms like vegetative have a desensitizing effect on us and make us less incensed at the notion of starving and dehydrating someone to death.

Indeed, in cases where a parents have neglected their non-disabled minor children to far lesser degrees, the general public is horrified and slack-jawed. Factor in an adult and a court mandate, however, and we seem significantly less offended.

Public conversation on the subject of Terri Schiavo seems to encircle recurring themes but rarely addresses the real problem. Many people claim that a spouse is next of kin and should make decisions for their mate, without interference from others. Though, under typical circumstances, I would agree with such a notion, I cannot help but wonder if Scott Olsen and Eric Bland wouldn't have welcome such interference. It is important to note that Terri's 'spouse' lives with and has fathered two children with another woman.

It seems that we have become rather selective in our outrage. When someone forcibly starves and dehydrates a defenseless person to their untimely death without the benefit of a judicial nod, we are shocked and appalled at the lack of humanity and we become hopeful that the heaviest sentence the legal system can muster will be applied to the offender. Yet, when a judge rubber stamps the very same treatment, we turn our heads in utter apathy.

Terri Schiavo still has a death order hanging over her. Where is the outrage at the court ordered starvation and dehydration proposed for her? Why is it that a judge's decree makes her suffering somehow less tangible or significant? How can a piece of paper somehow erase the reality of such a prolonged and ghastly death?

Terri Schiavo's story is no less outrageous than the stories of Scott Olsen or Eric Bland. In the end, the outcome is still the same. A judicial approval does not a murder excuse.

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