When Michael Schiavo stated emphatically that he would not divorce Terri or turn her care over to her parents, the Schindlers, people across America began talking. The question on everyone's mind was: Why not? In the debate over Terri Schiavo, it seemed that Americans could all agree on one thing: if he divorced her, the whole dilemma would have ended. Her parents would have been happy. And, he would finally be able to remarry.
But, perhaps the country mistook Michael Schiavo. Was he really the heartless man her parents had depicted him as? Or, was he in fact a man so committed to his wife that he willingly let himself be vilified by the American public.
At the time, Michael Schiavo claimed that he simply wanted to carry out Terri's wishes. He argued that she did not want to be sustained indefinitely by artificial means in a severely incapacitated state without hope of recovery. Rather, she had articulated to him that she preferred instead to die with dignity.
Mr. Schiavo was threatened and bribed. His detractors were determined to buy him off so that he would either reverse his decision to have Terri's feeding tube removed or at the very least remove himself as her guardian. Yet, he was steadfast. He stated in an interview: "She may be in a vegetative state, but her dignity requires that we honor her rights and that's what this case is about now."
Understanding why divorce was not an option
A divorce would have revoked Michael Schiavo's status as Terri's guardian. But why? For starters, marriage is a consensual contract that upholds the spouse's next of kin decisions and even routine decisions about daily care. For example, Michael was allowed by the courts to determine her visitors, how often she was to be administered Communion, and her burial arrangements.
So, in the attempt to take control of Terri's destiny, the Schindlers petitioned for a divorce on Terri's behalf March 1, 2005 on the grounds of alleged adultery. As expected, their petition was swiftly denied.
Had the petition been granted, her parents would have assumed full control of her destiny. The usual order of persons to make decisions for the patient is first adult children, then parents, after that, adult siblings and finally other relatives. Terri had no children, so full decision-making power would have passed to her parents. In cases where no listed person is available, a judge is appointed to decide. Clearly, the last thing Michael Schiavo wanted after his years of legal and in-law battles was to relinquish his guardianship of carrying out his wife's wishes.
A Conflict of Interest
It appeared to the American people that Michael Schiavo's decision was complicated by a conflict of interest. While he claimed that a part of him had moved on, he also claimed to love Terri so much that he was willing to fight to carry out her wishes.
It was still difficult for many to resolve his commitment to Terri with his new life, which included a long-time girlfriend and two children. Many assumed his steadfastness was motivated more by a need to move on in his life than his actual love for Terri. For his opponents, it was difficult to understand why he would withstand such hostility not simply from members of the Schindler family but from the public, if not for his desire to expedite his wife's death.
Why Appointing Terri's Parents as Guardians was not an option
The years of bitter battles in and out of the court house over Terri's care and money have established a relationship of mistrust between the Schindlers and Mr. Schiavo. When Terri Schiavo was found in February 1990, collapsed from a potassium deficiency, possibly caused by an eating disorder, she had suffered intensive brain damage. Initially, Michael Schiavo and the parents were united, even sharing a house together to optimize caring for her.
Michael Schiavo was eventually appointed guardian in 1990, taking her to California that same year for experimental treatments for her brain. When Terri was placed in a Florida nursing home, Michael Schiavo was a taskmaster with the staff over his wife's care. He went to nursing school to better understand the care for Terri. He filed a malpractice suit against the doctor who provided Terri with fertility treatment on the grounds that her potassium deficiency should have been detected.
Both sides view the financial award from the malpractice suit as the beginning of their 12 year-old feud. A fight occurred in 1993 when the Schiavo couple was awarded $750,000 in economic damages for Terri and $300,000 for Michael for loss of companionship. Michael Schiavo claims Mr. Schindler asked how much he would receive from the settlement. The Schindlers claimed they wanted the money for more aggressive therapy.
That same year, Michael Schiavo blocked the Schindlers access to his wife's medical records, and the Schindlers tried to remove Michael Schiavo as Terri's guardian.
In 1994, on the advice of Terri's doctor, Schiavo decided not to have her treated for a urinary tract infection, since hope for recovery seemed futile. He later changed his decision and his do not resuscitate order, after being challenged by the nursing home.
By 1998, Michael Schiavo had reached a turning point with his wife's treatment. Soon thereafter, he asked the court to remove Terri's feeding tube, which the Schindlers challenged. It was removed in 2001 and reconnected days later, based on new evidence which the Schindlers has sent to the media in an accelerated publicity campaign.
Given Terri's concern with appearances, Michael Schiavo forbade any further pictures by the family in an attempt to contain the media frenzy. He then subsequently decided to have her cremated, inciting an uproar amongst her family member who had hoped to have her buried in Florida. And despite the Schindler's efforts, a judge refused to intervene in Michael Schiavo's plans.
Ultimately, in this climate, divorce would have never been an option. In the face of such obstacles, he remained steadfast in his commitment to her wishes believing it to be the only way she would retain her dignity.