TCS Daily


Is There Really a 'New Diagnosis' for Terri Schiavo?

By Elizabeth M. Whelan - March 24, 2005 12:00 AM

While we at American Council on Science and Health have been determined to remain on the sidelines of the raging national debate about the fate of Terri Schiavo (this is largely a legal and ethical issue, not a scientific one), we cannot remain silent about the outrageous misrepresentation of scientific facts about this case that has been occurring in the past ten days.

The medical reality of Ms. Schiavo's case is this: She has been in what is medically referred to as a "permanent vegetative state" for the past 15 years, ever since her heart temporarily stopped (probably due to the severe effects of an eating disorder), depriving her brain of oxygen. Brain scans indicate that her cerebral cortex ceased functioning -- probably just after she experienced cardiac arrest in 1990. Ms. Schiavo's CAT scan shows massive shrinking of the brain, and her EEG is flat. Physicians confirm that there is no electrical activity coming from her brain. While the family video repeatedly shown on television suggests otherwise, her non-functioning cortex precludes cognition, including any ability to interact or communicate with people or show any signs of awareness. Dozens of experts over the years who have examined Ms. Schiavo agree that there is no hope of her recovering -- even though her body, face and eyes (if she is given food and hydration) might continue to move for decades to come.

 

Those are the harsh facts.

 

Thus it was shocking that Sen. Bill Frist -- a heart surgeon before becoming Senate majority leader -- went to the Senate floor twice last week to argue that Florida doctors had erred in saying that Terri is in a "persistent vegetative state." How did Frist arrive at this diagnosis? From watching the family videotapes.

 

Frist's comments were picked up by journalists, including FoxNews's Fred Barnes, who cited Sen. Frist as an authority in a debate with Morton Kondracke on The Beltway Boys last week.

 

Yesterday, there was another public challenge to Ms. Schiavo's well-established diagnosis: Florida governor Jeb Bush announced that a "very renowned neurologist," Dr. William Cheshire, had concluded that Terri had been misdiagnosed and that she was really only in a state of "minimal consciousness" rather than a persistent vegetative state. He used this "new diagnosis" to argue that "this new information raises serious concerns and warrants immediate action."

 

As it turns out, Dr. Cheshire is not "renowned" as a neurologist -- his limited publications focus on areas including headache pain and his opposition to stem cell research. Dr. Cheshire never conducted a physical examination of Ms. Schiavo, nor did he do neurological tests. Dr. Cheshire is director of biotech ethics at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, a nonprofit group founded by "more than a dozen leading Christian bioethicists." Everyone is free to be guided by a personal agenda -- and it is clear that Dr. Cheshire has his.

 

Let's call tripe when tripe is served. All of us are entitled to our own personal views on the Schiavo case, what her fate should be, and who should make decisions for her. But all of us should be united in rejecting politically-generated junk science.

 

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president and founder of the American Council on Science and Health. She is a life-long Republican.

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