Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Court Misreports

A few months ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article the possible link between taking antidepressant drugs and higher rates of suicide in teenagers. As is their wont, they focused on a particular case: a Kansan family whose son had killed himself after a couple of weeks on an antidepressant medication. Their story served as a useful introduction to a larger concern, but it also portrayed the case as potentially one of malfeasance by the pharmaceutical industry. The drug manufacturer had fought quite hard against the lawsuit the boy's parents filed, and in fact had won their case. The parents were left grief-stricken and a bit poorer, too, after paying their lawyers.

Any sympathetic reader would wonder why things turned out this way, and perhaps feel a bit of righteous indignation at the heartless pharmaceutical giant. What legal chicanery had they pulled off to evade responsibility for that young man's death? It turns out that one of the teen's friends testified at the trial that he had spoken at great length, on repeated occasions, about his suicidal impulses and his plans to kill himself. (This was before he went on the medication, of course.) This highly significant information was mentioned briefly, buried deep in the story, and might easily have been missed by an inattentive reader. But of course it is essential to understanding how the case came to be decided as it was.

I don't mean to pass final judgment on that particular legal outcome; perhaps the parents had a stronger case than I recall, and perhaps antidepressant drugs do increase the risk of teen suicide. What interests me is the common link between that article and the vast majority of the coverage of the Theresa Schiavo case, namely how lazy, sloppy journalism produces a bizarrely distorted impression of the judicial system. The principles and evidence that really matter in legal proceedings are ignored, blurred over, or selectively covered so as to make the courts' decisions seem incomprehensible, when in fact they make a great deal of sense.

To judge from much of the media coverage of the Schiavo case, one would think something like the following: Michael Schiavo has decided to pull the plug on his mentally impaired but still conscious wife. Her parents (the Schindlers) have sought to prevent this, thereby saving her life, but are prevented from doing so by a court system that focuses only on legal technicalities and is perfectly willing to forcibly starve a woman to death if her husband, i.e. her legal guardian, says he wants to do so. His decision to opt for death is opposed to her parents' desire for life.

This is, of course, the picture that the Schindlers would like to portray. It is the picture painted (in more vitriolic terms) by the people who are demonstrating and praying outside Mrs. Schiavo's hospice, and by the people who have been arrested for trying to bring her bread (which would choke her) and water (which would drown her). And it is false in almost every detail.

For a start, it's not as if Michael Schiavo could simply decide on his own to terminate treatment — that decision also involved his wife's doctors, the administrators of her hospice, and ultimately the courts. His input is important, but it is not definitive. (A husband who wanted to terminate life support for a wife who was expected to make a full recovery would, of course, not be obeyed. He'd probably be arrested.)

Even more importantly, the decision to terminate treatment is supposed to be the court's best assessment of what Terri Schiavo herself would have wanted. There has been conflicting testimony about her attitude toward having her life artificially prolonged, but the courts have determined that her most recent statements as an adult (corroborated by multiple witnesses, mind you, not just her husband) indicated that she did not want to have her life prolonged under circumstances very like the ones she is in now. Michael Schiavo's stubbornness in this case, as he has said all along, is based on his conviction that he is obeying his wife's wishes, regardless of what her parents and siblings might believe.

And one would think that the most important fact of the case would be announced repeatedly by anyone interested in the truth: namely, that Terri Schiavo's brain has been destroyed, that she is in a permanent vegetative state, and that she has absolutely no chance of recovery, ever. The "controversy" over this basically consists of the opinions of people who are unable to face the truth (her parents and siblings), or of people who have no expertise to judge (her parents and siblings again, and the utterly contemptible Bill Frist).

The Schindlers are well aware of all this (or at least the parts that don't conflict with their great capacity for wishful thinking), but their supporters mostly seem to have no inkling of it. It does not speak well of the Schindlers or their handlers (including the odious Randall Terry) that they have managed to produce such a misunderstanding of the facts of the case among so many people. It speaks even more poorly of the press that they haven't worked harder to get these absolutely elementary facts of the case into every story they print about it. If the press doesn't report so as to clarify matters, how will matters ever be properly understood?

Update: Theresa Schiavo has died. I hope that she rests in peace, and that her relatives can find some measure of peace as well. As regards the topic of my post, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Yahoo story that described some elements of the case in accurate detail:

Courts had long sided with her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, in ruling she would not have wanted to live like this and should be allowed to die.

But the Schindlers fought in courts to prolong their daughter's life...
Correct. This was the courts' best judgment of what she would have wanted. And the Schindlers weren't trying to "save" their daughter's life, as so many recent headlines have proclaimed, they were trying to prolong it.

Schiavo Dies 13 Days After Feeding Tube Removed

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Big Time

A reader! An actual reader! Other than my very patient friends from the music forum, I mean. This is the big time now. It's only a matter of time before I have two readers, then three, and then... who knows? Maybe I can support myself on the ad income, like Josh Marshall. Oh yeah!