Was the Autopsy the Final Word on Terri Schiavo’s Euthanasia Death

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 11, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Was the Autopsy the Final Word on Terri Schiavo’s Euthanasia Death Email this article
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By Diana Lynne
October 11, 2005

LifeNews.com Note: Diana Lynne is the author of "Terri’s Story: The Court-Ordered Death of an American Woman," a book on the life and death of Terri Schiavo.

In the minds of many Americans, the results of the autopsy performed on Terri Schiavo served as the final word on the debate over whether the 41-year-old brain-damaged Florida woman should have been dehydrated to death per court order. News outlets across the board delivered the results released June 15 to their audiences as "vindication" for Michael Schiavo for having fought seven long years in court for the right to remove his wife’s feeding tube and end her life. At the same time, journalists vilified the Schindlers, Terri’s parents and siblings, for having opposed him. "End of story," many say, while others beg to differ.

The body of Terri Schiavo was whisked to the coroner’s office on March 31 within hours of her succumbing to 13 days with neither fluids nor food after Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge George Greer ordered her feeding tube removed and barred oral nutrition and hydration.

Nearly 11 weeks later, Pinellas-Pasco County chief medical examiner Dr. Jon Thogmartin confirmed Terri Schiavo died of "marked dehydration," even though he listed the exact cause of death as "complications of anoxic encephalopathy," or brain damage. He declared Terri’s heart to be strong and estimated she would have lived another decade if not for the feeding-tube removal.

Thogmartin couldn’t provide an answer for the $64,000 dollar question, although the media were largely persuaded he had and variously reported the autopsy "backed Schiavo" in his longtime assertion that his wife was in a persistent vegetative state, or PVS.

Thogmartin and consulting neuropathologist Dr. Stephen Nelson stressed in the autopsy report that PVS is a clinical diagnosis made through physical examination of a living patient ­ not a pathological diagnosis made postmortem. Still, Nelson reported that pathological and anatomical findings, such as her shrunken brain and dilated ventricles, were "consistent" with the PVS diagnosis reached in the court. He pointed out that Terri’s brain weighed 615 grams, which is less than half of the expected weight for an adult her age. He also pointed out Terri’s brain weighed less than her famous vegetative predecessor Karen Ann Quinlan.

Thogmartin conceded it is unknown how much the long duration of dehydration contributed to the shrinkage of Terri Schiavo’s brain.

At the press conference held to announce the autopsy findings, Nelson went further in lending support for the court’s diagnosis of PVS. He emphasized the pathological findings were "very consistent" with PVS, but admitted he could not rule out the possibility Terri Schiavo was in a minimally conscious state, or MCS, because there are no published studies on pathological correlations to the clinical diagnosis of MCS.

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