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Tragic aspects of Terri Schiavo's case
by Betsy Hart
Scripps Howard News Service

March 24, 2005

Just when is a "husband" not a husband?

There are so many tragic aspects to the Terri Schiavo case, and her husband's being allowed to act as her "husband" when he is not being a husband to her at all - and our society's apparent willingness to tolerate such things without value judgment - is one of them.

As I write, Terri Schiavo, a brain damaged woman capable of at least some small level of physical and possibly human response, is dying because her feeding tube has been removed at the direction of her husband and over her parents' desperate wishes otherwise.

Here's what I don't get: I have heard many commentators rightly point out that Schiavo's husband Michael has long been living with another woman, with whom he has started a family, and so he may have an ulterior motive, or at least mixed ones, in demanding Schiavo to be allowed to die. There is speculation that because Michael Schiavo is Catholic, he feels he cannot divorce.

I myself am more than willing to accept that Michael may believe that Terry really would want to die in this instance, and in effect he feels (mistakenly) that he is really looking out for her interests.

I say "mistakenly" because while Terry was brain damaged, she was not dying before the starvation and dehydration process was begun. She has no terminal disease. There were no means - say a respirator - by which she was having her life artificially prolonged. In fact, whether or not she was even in a persistent vegetative state was questionable, as she shows signs of physical alertness and, according to eyewitnesses who are not members of her family, clear attempts at speech and human interaction. All that was being done for her was to feed her - albeit through a tube - and thus allow her to live.

That has, of course, been overtaken by events. But I wonder - what if Terry could swallow on her own, but had to be spoon-fed? Would Michael and the many who back him want to deny that too? Is there a difference?

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to have an incapacitated spouse for 15 years - though I know there are many people in our society who live with just that situation - and I don't pretend to make light of that burden whether emotional, physical or both. In recent years Michael has not been taking care of Terri.

But here's my point: Whatever his own motives, whatever the law, Michael Schiavo chose to effectively end his marriage when he moved in with another woman and essentially became a husband to her, and so he no longer has the moral right to act as Terri's husband. If he could not bear to keep his vow of "in sickness and in health," then he should have lawfully divorced Terri, moved on with his life, and allowed her parents to become her guardians. If he wanted to act as her husband and make decisions on her behalf, then he should have continued in faithful marriage to her, however hard that would surely be. Morally, he has no right to do both. As a culture, we should have forced him to choose one or the other.

I would still argue, by the way, that a husband cannot deny his wife food and water, no matter how ill she is. But at least we would be talking about a husband who was acting in integrity as a husband.

What astonishes me is that our culture allows this man to act as her husband - when he is living as a husband to another woman.

In so doing, we make a mockery of marriage.

So, what else is new?

Oh and just where, by the way, is the National Organization of Women (NOW) on this one? If a man living with another woman was trying to keep his comatose wife from getting an abortion deemed "in her medical interest," NOW would be all over the airwaves defending her right - against his desires - to have everything done to "save her life" and proceed with the abortion. But in this case it's a husband living with another woman ensuring that his not quite comatose wife die by starvation - and so NOW has been silent.

So much for the defenders of women's rights.

So, what else is new?

Unwittingly, Terri Schiavo has become an important flashpoint in our culture wars and so, I hope, her death will not have been in vain.

May Terri Schiavo rest in peace.


Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel,
can be reached by e-mail at letterstohart(at)


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