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Issue Date:  April 8, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Complexity vs. emotionalism

On the Monday after Easter, just back at work, I received a call from a reporter at a paper in the Northeast who covers media. He wanted to know what I thought of the coverage of the Terri Schiavo case. In a nutshell, I told him I thought one had to separate coverage by television from coverage in print. The latter, I thought, had carried more background detail, more information about Schiavo’s medical condition, details like the years of therapy to which she had failed to respond and the “swallow” tests she had repeatedly failed. Abundant examples also existed of print allowing experts to go on at considerable length to explain the complexity of the situation.

Television, I thought, had played to the emotional side of the story, and had allowed words such as “murder” and “starvation” to be used without qualification and had ultimately given a platform to the overwhelmingly political agenda that unfolded around the Schiavo case. I saw a lot of combative talking heads and the ubiquitous two monks who seemed to always know more things more absolutely than any team of physicians, theologians or ethicists.

Within minutes of the first call, I received another from someone associated with one of the cable networks who, without prompting, told me he thought television had done “a disservice” to viewers for many of the reasons noted above. He said he knew not everyone felt the same way about the case and wanted to know if I had some suggestions for interviews. I faxed him the story from our April 1 issue, which contained interviews with a range of thinkers.

Beneficial as it may be to have a wide discussion of end-of-life issues, at the heart of this case really was an ugly family dispute of the sort that makes reasonable decisions impossible, particularly after they became public causes trumpeted by public relations experts and picked up by political opportunists.

It was the kind of case that makes for bad law and awful sound bites.

~ ~ ~

The analysis by Dr. Edward Sunshine is, I think, a refreshingly lucid and accessible explanation both of church thinking that has historically framed our approach to medical ethics as well as the alterations to that approach and contradictions to it that have been introduced in recent months and weeks (see story). I hope you find it helpful in fashioning your own thinking not only about the Schiavo case but also other end-of-life issues that seem to be increasingly complex and prevalent.

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One of the more informative TV discussions I became aware of occurred on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, which always provides intelligent discussions of religious issues and which gets far too little notice in the wider culture. Bob Abernathy, program anchor, interviewed Dr. John Harvey, chair of the Bioethics Committee at Georgetown University. A transcript is available at At one point in the interview, Dr. Harvey addressed an issue that has not often been part of the discussion: “Life has great value, of course, but it’s not the final value of human life. The final value of human life is life with God in heaven, and when we keep that from happening by treating a futile situation, we’re blocking the final ‘telos’ -- as the Greeks say -- of human life.”

Terry Schiavo, 41, died just before we went to print. May she rest in peace.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2005

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