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Using Terri: The Religious Right's Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 02 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:309
  1. Fred Charatan, retired geriatric physician (charatanf{at}
  1. Boynton Beach, Florida, USA

    The case of Terri Schiavo, a brain dead Florida woman at the centre of a family battle over whether she should be kept alive or be allowed to die, is one that divided America last year, pitching right against left and religious groups against secular sentiment (BMJ 2005;330: 687). Terri, who died on 31 March 2005, had been on a life support machine for 15 years after a cardiac arrest. She was in a persistent vegetative state and had received artificial nutrition and hydration via a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy against her previous wish to her husband, Michael, not to be kept alive “on anything artificial.” An autopsy showed massive cerebral atrophy.

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    Jon B Eisenberg

    HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95, pp 288 ISBN 0 06 087732 4 Also available as an ebook, $19.95

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    Terri's parents, however, fiercely opposed her husband's decision to let her die; Florida governor Jeb Bush was a strong supporter of their case. Both camps took their case through the courts in what became one of the most high profile life and death struggles in US media history.

    This book, by a lawyer who joined Michael Schiavo's legal team in March 2005, argues that there is a vast right-wing conspiracy “to change America into a theocracy where the [US] Constitution is subservient to the Bible and religious fundamentalists across the Judeo-Christian spectrum would intrude on our lives from conception to death by taking away our rights of personal autonomy.” In a nutshell, according to Howard Ahmanson Jr, “one of the ultrarich funders” of the religious right, whom Eisenberg quotes, “My purpose is total integration of biblical law into our lives” (p 95).

    Whereas most bioethicists, says Eisenberg, uphold the concept of personal choice over artificial nutrition and hydration in an advanced directive or living will, the religious right opposes it. Moreover, the religious right viewed the emotive case of Terry Schiavo as a crucial episode in the battle for hearts and minds over a whole range of personal autonomy issues from gay rights to abortion, and, Eisenberg claims, had its big guns lined up in support of Terri's parents, Mr and Mrs Schindler.

    Eisenberg provides well researched evidence of this, identifying—in addition to Jeb Bush—seven foundations and 14 think-tanks in the high command behind the Schindlers, as well as 18 “foot soldiers” (activists, lawyers, and politicians). He also exposes the efforts in Congress to breach the separation of powers in the US Constitution, and to over-ride the judiciary at the state level.

    Using Terri takes the reader through a maze of legal manoeuvres crafted mostly by lawyers for the Schindlers, waging a last-ditch fight in the courts, the Florida legislature, and Governor Jeb Bush's office, and even going as far as President George W Bush and the US Congress. But for all its efforts, in the end the religious right's Terri crusade was unsuccessful. Two polls by CBS News and ABC News in March 2005 showed 70% and 82% of Americans felt that Congress was wrong to intervene in the Schiavo case.

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