Terri Schiavo responds happily to her mother

"Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain!!!!" Attending Terri Schiavo's Appeals Hearing on April 4, 2003

By Rus Cooper-Dowda
April 5, 2003

As as kid watching "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time, I remember thinking I was home free once I got past those scary flying monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West. But suddenly at the end there was the large falsely projected Wizard shouting at our heroes to "Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!!!!"

Attending the latest hearing in the effort to save Terri Schiavo's life was like that -- right down to the thick, rich red curtains in the background. The entire proceeding was structured to make the real person with disabilities named Terri disappear behind the curtain of talk while the huge threat of her being starved to death could not be banished.

I could fill you in on how if Terri had been allowed a wheelchair she would not have been able to come to her own hearing because the accessible entrance was locked for security reasons. I could tell you how I and an autistic young person waiting to enter the courtroom were repeatedly mistaken for beggars. I could tell you that the very space used to talk about whether Terri gets to live or die was not disability accessible.

I'm not going to do that here because I am hoping more local disabled people in attendance will instead be acting on the inaccessibility they witnessed in the heart of their own community. Surely media film of me having to bounce down the front stairs of the courthouse in my manual wheelchair will move someone.

But, back to the reason we were there: Of course we were asked to all rise for the judges without allowance for those who could not. Then there was this blessing pronounced upon everyone -- "May God save the United States of America, this Honorable Court and the State of Florida."

If Terri Schiavo was automatically included in that we wouldn't have had to be there.

There were three judges listening. Only one asked questions. The lead attorney for each side spoke. It was a very brief amount of time to speak volumes for all 53 million of us Americans with disabilities. Under the time contraints, we did not even get a nanosecond each. You could have had more than three such hearings in the time it takes to see "The Wizard of Oz" once.

The arguments came down to what is "given" and what is "not." The only speaking judge (who bore a startling resemblence to the attorney who would like to see Terri dead) interrupted Terri's family's attorney very early to complain of "the problem with the precision of words."

The parents' attorney went first and simply explained that the wrong definitions were being applied to Ms. Schiavo.

The "word problem" was the thread throughout the rest of the hearing. Was "new" treatment experimental or just unused? Was an improved CT scan better technology or a better Terri?

One question had to do with whether contractures were solely brain damage that could not be treated or could they be addressed. At that point I put on the wrist braces I wear for my own contractures to help illustrate a simple treatment. I kept them on for the rest of the hearing.

The family attorney explained that the lower court judge used a scorecard for response that stacked the deck no matter how Terri responded. If she always responded -- it was just primitive brain stem activity. If she randomly responded -- it was not repetitive enough. If it wasn't as fast as the demander wanted -- then, hey, she was "too" disabled.

About this time the judge asked for an assurance that Terri could be restored by treatment before treatment was tried. He wanted to know the probability of function restoration for Terri the way people want guaranteed winning odds from their bookies before they bet any money on the Superbowl.

Ms. Anderson gently pointed out that medicine and life didn't work that way. She asked what harm there would be in a trial period of full therapies before deciding such therapies wouldn't work.

Then the judge drew us all back into "Oz" by asking, "Does Terri have a brain?" At that point I had to reflect on the new idea that scarecrows in need of brains were now allowed to go to law school.

The family attorney's time was up. It was time for the attorney arguing to kill Terri to make his case.

He began by announcing that his personal title for hearing paperwork was "The Last Brief." Speaking Judge immediately pointed out that HIS personal title in no way mattered to the court.

The Judge asked the husband's attorney if the doctor promoting Terri's death was someone the court could trust. The answer was affirmative based on academic research and that the doctor in question had studied every person who has ever come out of a PVS state.

I knew for certain that is not true. I am one and I have never heard from him.

The Right-To-Die attorney then brought up one case of an alleged recovery from a vegetative state but dramatically announced that the person was STILL PARALYZED afterwards. Somehow, he felt that thereby proved there had been no real recovery.

The judge asked about relying heavily on the extensive videotapes of Terri actively engaging in her environment with people, objects, changing light and sounds. He asked, "Should that affect our standard of review?"

The husband's attorney stated that to use the hours of visual evidence would be an abuse of the court's discretion. To do so would damage society and the public perception of the legitimacy of the judiciary.

The judge pounced at that and said, "If I was worried about the public perception of the legitimacy of the court, I would want the public to think I took too long to decide to disconnect...to err on life."

The second attorney admitted it was hard not to view the case from an emotional point of view and that it was the basis of the parents' appeal. Speaking Judge responded by asking whether Terri wouldn't have also made a decision with emotion. The answer was yes. But, the court was required to be dispassionate, correct and factual.

Then the husband's attorney made requests that were renewed attempts to punch the family, the disabled people present and the court in the gut.

He asked that there be no more automatic stays on her starvation order because they were just meant to delay Terri's death -- no more. The Judge verbally rebuffed him because of the severe consequences of his request.

He asked that no treatment that has not been tried or discussed before Fall 2002 be allowed if requested in the future. The judge asked, "How can the court rule on something that hasn't happened yet?"

In the opposing attorney's final argument for why Terri Schiavo should die, he took us right back into "Oz" again courtesy of the Legal Yellow Pad Road.

He expressed great horror that anyone one "in her condition" (read: with a disability) would ever want their picture taken -- especially someone who ate with a feeding tube!!!!

He mentioned yet again that asking for a ham sandwich would prove Terri should live. Only the Cowardly Lion would be so afraid of reduced capacity and the inability to eat a sandwich by himself!

Although, if using silverware and being able to chew pork is your standard for life, I could be convinced that TinMan-Lack-Of-Heart Ethics are involved, too.

In closing, the final question was this: When reasonable men (their word choice) differ concerning Terri Schiavo's life -- should the court err on the side of life or death?

The husband's attorney's final stance was that allowing Terri to continue to live "would be bad public policy." He held it would be an abuse of legal discretion to let Terri continue.

Terri's attorney rightly pointed out this was "gotcha litigation." She meant: Deny therapy for a problem. Watch the problem get worse. Then point out the worsened problem as the reason to end her life.

Her final words were these: "The fact that Terri Schiavo cannot bring a spoon to her mouth should not be a death sentence."

The result of all this? Terri still can't signal "There's no place like home" because she's not allowed a communication board that can cost less than $2.00. She's still not allowed to click on a picture of red shoes with a busy board from Toys R Us.

She's not allowed the kind of therapy that would let her into the conversation going about her own life.

And meanwhile we all wait the weeks it will take before we know if this time the court let her out of the ongoing tornado of need and depravation.

- by Rus Cooper-Dowda

Rus Cooper-Dowda is a journalist with disabilities who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. Read her story! Rus Cooper-Dowda attended the Schiavo hearing as a representative for Not Dead Yet.

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