March 27, 2008 (Jewish World Review)
By Nat Hentoff
In none of the endless presidential candidates' debates has there been a meaningful discussion of the rights of disabled Americans. However, in the Feb. 26 debate in Cleveland, Barack Obama casually and ignorantly revealed his misunderstanding of the basic issue in the highly visible and still-resonating official death sentence of a disabled woman, Terri Schiavo.
I have repeatedly called her death the result of "the longest public execution in American history."
When moderator Tim Russert asked Hillary Clinton and Obama if "there are any words or votes that you'd like to take back ... in your careers in public service," Obama answered that in his first year in the Senate, he joined an agreement "that allowed Congress to interject itself (in the Schiavo case) into the decision-making process of the families."
Obama added: 'I think that was a mistake, and I think the American people understood that was a mistake. And as a constitutional law professor, I knew better."
When he was a professor of constitutional law, Obama probably instructed his students to research and know all the facts of a case. The reason Congress asked the federal courts to review the Schiavo case was that the 41-year-old woman about to be dehydrated and starved to death was breathing normally on her own, was not terminal, and there was medical evidence that she was responsive, not in a persistent vegetative state.
One of the leading congressional advocates of judicial review was staunchly liberal Democratic Tom Harkin of Iowa, because he is deeply informed about disability rights. By contrast, in all of this inflamed controversy, the mainstream media performed miserably, copying each other's errors instead of doing their own investigations of what Terri's wishes actually were. Consequently, most Americans did not know that 29 major national disability-rights organizations filed legal briefs and lobbied Congress to understand that this was not a right-to-die case, but about the right to continue living.
Among them were:
The National Spinal Cord Injury Association; the National Down Syndrome Congress; the World Association of Persons with Disabilities; Not Dead Yet; and the largest American assembly of disability-rights activists, the American Association of People with Disabilities. AAPD's head, Andrew J. Imparato, has testified before the Senate that: "When we start devaluing the lives of people with disabilities, we don't know where that's going to stop. You also need to take into account the financial implications of all of this. We have an economy that is not doing as well as it once was and ... one way to save money is to make it easier for people with disabilities to die."
I recommend to Obama — if he wants to make amends — that he consult the disability-rights experts at Not Dead Yet for the facts of the Terri Schiavo case and its acute relevance to many Americans in similar situations.
Not Dead Yet is about 12 miles from Chicago at 7521 Madison St., Forest Park, Ill. If this presidential contender and former law professor had bothered to do his own research, he would have discovered — as I did in four years of covering this story and interviewing participants, including neurologists, on both sides, that:
The husband of the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo, Michael Schiavo, had stopped testing and rehabilitation for her in 1993, 12 years before her death. Moreover, for years he had been living with another woman, with whom he had two children, and whom he has since married. Michael Schiavo has continually insisted that he finally succeeded in having Terri's feeding tube removed because he was respecting Terri's wishes — which she could no longer communicate — that she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means.
But at a January 2000 trial — as reported by Notre Dame law school professor O. Carter Snead in "Constitutional Quarterly" (published by the University of Minnesota Law School) in its winter 2005 issue:
Five witnesses testified on whether Terri would have refused artificial nutrition, including water, in the condition she was in. Her mother and a close friend of Terri testified she had said clearly she would want these essential life needs. The other three witnesses said Terri would have approved the removal of her feeding tube.
These last three were in alliance on what became a death penalty: Michael Schiavo, his brother and his sister-in-law!
It was on the basis of that 3-to-2 vote that Florida state judge George Greer ruled that "clear and convincing evidence" allowed him to remove her from life — and then 19 judges in six courts, including federal courts — agreed. Like the press, those judges did no independent investigations of their own. And those careless judges are now joined by the equally irresponsible robot-like judgment of Sen. Barack Obama. He should be proud of the Senate vote he now recants — and learn a lot more about the disabled.