March 23, 2005

The national debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo lays bare the ways we in America talk about our most important values. It is a cautionary tale for journalists faced with the challenge of framing issues fueled by fiercely held beliefs, complex science and hotly contested claims that defy simple resolution.

This is a story that journalists can better serve with questions than answers. If there were ever an opportunity for journalists to transform their work from lecture to conversation, as many journalism reformers are proposing these days, this is it.

Unlike any story in recent memory, this one highlights the intimate connection between the personal and the political, the private and the universal. It’s a story that is rearranging the liberal/conservative landscape on such issues as states rights and the role of a spouse.

“It touches a lot of nerves,” Fox News producer John Finley told the Orlando Sentinel.  “Many stories that get this kind of coverage boil down to people’s personal connections to it.”

It’s also the kind of story that invites us to change the way we talk with one another, to declare our beliefs at the same time we wrestle openly with our doubts.

Along the way, we are discovering the power of words to convey truths, untruths and some things that are simply unknowable.Along the way, we are discovering the power of words to convey truths, untruths and some things that are simply unknowable.

The best journalists and politicians have taken great pains to use such terms as persistent vegetative state, brain damage and minimally conscious with care and precision. The concepts are not interchangeable.

At times, words like brain damage can be overly vague. Yes, Terri Schiavo has a damaged brain. But not in the same way that my older brother Tim, who lives with our parents, has a damaged brain. Tim has an IQ somewhere around 50 and bags groceries at the Piggly Wiggly.

Some days, Tim won’t eat unless someone sets the food out for him. It’s never occurred to me to withhold such nourishment. But I have often asked myself at what point brain damage could render a life so meaningless that prolonging it would seem inappropriate.

At times, the more precise phrase of persistent vegetative state can be too clinical. In its technical precision, it can lose its ability to convey meaning. It must be translated and interpreted to give it meaning. And along with translation and interpretation come subjectivity and dispute.

In conversations about the Schiavo story, we find that the words we use to characterize another lead us back to ourselves. I think about my brother’s life. You might think about your grandfather’s death. It may be unprecedented in the history of our country that so much legal and political energy has been spent to influence the outcome of one person’s life. In the struggle to do what’s right for Terri Schiavo, we are really trying to do what’s right for all of us.

Earlier this week, the pastor of my church, Rev. Robert Gibbons of St. Paul Catholic Parish in Pinellas County, Fla., was at the hospital visiting a dying woman. He said she can no longer swallow and that her children told him she has refused a feeding tube. 

Father Gibbons said others have asked him: Is it a sin to refuse treatment in circumstances like that? He said such a choice involves no sin. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would answer otherwise.

But the Schiavo case is more complicated than that. Unlike the woman Father Gibbons visited, Terri Schiavo is unable to make clear her wishes. So the case turns, in part, on what she might say if she could speak. More precisely, it raises the question of who should speak for her since she cannot.  

The case raises these questions as well: When is death inevitable? And what constitutes extraordinary means? When should the inevitability of death outweigh our capacity to prolong life? Is there a tipping point in the journey to death? If Schiavo were 70 years old, or 50, would we be having this conversation?

The fight to keep Schiavo alive has led thousands and thousands of Americans to create living wills that would prevent this very battle should their own medical care come into question. The process of making those decisions is forcing people to come to grips with the nature of death as well as life. 

The nature of marriage

The battle over Terri Schiavo’s life also raises questions about the nature of marriage. It’s one of the areas where traditional positions of liberals and conservatives are shifting ground in this case.

The primacy of the marriage bonds is not, at first blush, the argument you’d expect from what’s cast as the liberal side of this debate. More often it’s conservatives who are associated with the position that a marriage, even one that is flawed, should take priority over other familial relationships.

As Congress has promoted marriage among the poor and single parents, members have argued that legally bonded relationships are emotionally, economically and socially superior to others.

The Schiavo case is also shifting the traditional positions of some liberals and conservatives about the relationship between state and federal governments and courts.

As The New York Times pointed out in interviews published Wednesday, not all conservatives share the view that justice would be served by federal appeals courts overturning state court decisions on the issue of the feeding tube.

This is a story with many dimensions. The best journalism explores them all.This is a story with many dimensions. The best journalism explores them all. It delivers stories and interviews that force me to uncover the doubt that is hidden by my certainty.

If we can create a successful conversation about words and marriage and life and death, we can accomplish a lot — maybe we can even find hope in a divided society. If journalists can help people give voice to our reservations in the same breath that we declare our convictions, we can make progress. If we can learn to ask questions of one another on a story like this — and then listen to the answers — perhaps we’d discover an open and civil society within our grasp.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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