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Judging The Motives Of A Stranger

Is it fair to judge the motives and attack the integrity of a stranger? Or is it just easy?

Perhaps Paul A. Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, can answer. His page produced a vicious, unwarranted and chillingly casual attack on Michael Schiavo at the height of the legal and political battle surrounding Terri Schiavo’s fate.

After noting that at least 19 judges in six courts had already “weighed in” on the case, the Journal’s March 21 editorial asserted: “Another judge might look differently today on Mr. Schiavo’s right-to-die claims given his apparent incentives to be rid of the burden of a severely disabled wife. He lives with a girlfriend, with whom he has children. It was not until 1993, after a medical-malpractice jury awarded him roughly $1 million for Terri’s long-term care, that he began to seek his wife’s death.”

This smear required only three sentences. One would hope the editors could keep their facts straight at least that long. Michael Schiavo did not ask the court to authorize withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration from his wife until 1998. That was five years after he won the malpractice case and a related settlement, and eight years after his wife lapsed into what her attending doctors concluded was a “persistent vegetative state,” lacking all awareness of her surroundings. The editorial referred to her condition only as “an incapacitated state.”

The legal case was never about whether Michael Schiavo wanted his wife to die, or whether her parents wanted her to live. It was about what Terri Schiavo herself would have wanted under the circumstances. The courts agreed with Michael Schiavo that those circumstances were hopeless. Because Mrs. Schiavo left no written directives, the courts had to do the best they could to divine her intent, ultimately accepting testimony from Michael Schiavo and several members of his family that she did not wish to be maintained in a vegetative state.

If Michael Schiavo wanted to keep for himself the money he won for Terri’s care, he could have asked five years earlier for permission to withdraw life support. Or he could have sought permission even sooner and pursued the malpractice cases with a wrongful death claim. Like his wife’s parents, he apparently held on to hope that something good might happen. He just did not hold on as long.

Was it noteworthy that he now lives with “a girlfriend” and has two children with her? Maybe, but I think not in the way the Journal suggests. More likely there is a heroic woman out there who persevered against all sorts of intrusions, insinuations and threats, allowing Mr. Schiavo to continue to represent the interests of the woman he met first. Had he divorced Terri Schiavo, as Mrs. Schiavo’s parents wanted, he would have lost his standing to represent her wishes regarding medical care.

Yes, he also would have ceased to be her heir. The Journal insinuated that this was his motivation, without bothering to find out what, if anything, would have been left after medical and legal bills were paid. Other press reports have indicated that there would not be much. The Journal did not acknowledge even the possibility that Michael Schiavo is a decent man who was not in it for the money.

Editorials in The Wall Street Journal are unsigned. How cowardly, it seems to me, to sit in a New York office and pass judgment on the morals and motives of another human being, hundreds of miles away, who is described throughout the court record as having spent 15 years diligently supervising the care of a helpless woman. How craven to suggest that there was something wrong in this man’s continuing to live his own life while he did so. And how easy to do it in The Wall Street Journal’s name rather than your own.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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