On February 25th, 1990, Terri Schiavo collapsed at her Florida home from what doctors said was a potassium imbalance, possibly caused by her bulimia. Her brain did not receive oxygen for around five minutes and the effect of that deprivation caused severe brain damage. Doctors seem to have disagreed over the extent of that brain damage; the doctors hired by her husband have said that she is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), without the ability to think, speak or respond to commands and without being aware of her surroundings.

Doctors hired by Terri’s parents, meanwhile, have said they believe she could improve with therapy. But her husband Michael gave up on therapy after years of trying, and she has not received physical therapy for more than a decade now. Her parents contend that, when she was receiving such therapeutic care, she uttered a few one-syllable words, although sounds from those in a PVS that could seem like words are not uncommon, which is also true with motions such as blinking. According to doctors who performed tests, spinal fluid now occupies the space where her cerebral cortex was, rendering her mental faculties clearly beyond use.

Because medical procedures were not adhered to at the time of Terri’s collapse, her husband Michael filed a medical malpractice suit which he won, with the result that he was awarded $300,000 for loss of consortium and his wife Terri was awarded $700,000 in compensation. Her money went into a trust over which Michael has control; it was used for her medical care and legal expenses and ran out about three years ago.

Under Florida law, the spouse of an incapacitated adult is rendered that person’s guardian. Therefore Michael Schiavo is able to make decisions for Terri, including the right to refuse any form of medical intervention such as her feeding tube. Her parents, however, feel that the fact that he is living with another woman now and has two children with her constitutes a conflict of interest. They contend that he cannot uphold the best interests of his wife while living in what they describe as an adulterous relationship. Michael simply says that he is removing his wife’s feeding tube as part of keeping his promise to her that he would not allow artificial means to preserve her life in such a situation. He also says that his new family does not affect his feelings for his wife and his love for her is still strong.

The constant appeals by the parents to various courts have resulted in the same outcome again and again: a judgment that it is not within the jurisdiction of the court system to circumvent the legal authority of Terri’s husband as her guardian. That is the reason for the court’s refusal to hear this case again, despite the belief of many that the court had further opinions on Michael’s actions. So this is not, as some are keen to suggest, Big Government interfering in the life and death of an individual citizen. It is actually the opposite: it is the government expressly not interfering in the life and death of an individual citizen. (In this case, ironically, it is conservatives that want government interference for pro-life reasons, exemplified by their current emotional appeals to Florida governor Jeb Bush.) The courts are simply upholding the current law, which grants Michael Schiavo guardianship in the event that his wife is unable to speak for herself.

So, is that a good law?

I think it is. Essentially, marriage is a civil contract with certain terms added by the state. I would like to see marriage reduced to a solely civil contract like any other, where the individuals entering into marriage set the terms of their contract according to what each of them may want. But that is not the case. Under the current system, it is the state that sets the terms of marriage and, in the case of marriages in Florida, one of those terms is that one’s spouse becomes the guardian in the event that one becomes incapacitated. In effect, what this means is that, by choosing a spouse in Florida, you are also choosing a guardian in the event that you are incapacitated.

Thus Terri Schiavo chose her guardian, knowingly, willfully and legally. She chose someone she could trust, someone that loved her, someone that she knew had her best interests at heart. And in 1990, that was put to the test. Today, whether she is or isn’t in a persistent vegetative state, nobody denies that she is very much incapacitated and unable to speak for herself. And in that position, when Terri’s personally elected guardian speaks – the guardian she herself appointed on her wedding day – we must regard his words as though we were listening to Terri herself. In this case, that involves refusing a medical intervention, which is a basic right. Nobody knows her better than her husband, and he is saying that she would not want to be kept alive artificially in this circumstance. Whether you or I agree or disagree with his decision is irrelevant, and neither is it the business of government: the law fittingly provides that her husband Michael has the sole right to speak for her.

The objection of his parents is that Michael Schiavo has forfeited his right to guardianship by living with a girlfriend and their two children. In 1993, they petitioned the court to remove their son-in-law as Terri’s guardian, but lost. The court system decided that Michael Schiavo’s right to move on romantically and regain a semblance of normal life, including new relationships, does not constitute a reason to withdraw his guardianship of Terri. I agree. It seems a fairly reasonable thing to me that someone is entitled to move on; indeed it seems obvious that most people would expect that of their spouse (that they would want them to be happy and fulfilled).

‘Why does he not just divorce her?’ That question has been asked a lot this week. It demonstrates the fundamental absence of understanding their circumstances. It is somehow assumed that, since he has a new relationship and a new family, that Michael doesn’t love his wife Terri anymore. Most of the people criticizing Michael Schiavo have never been in his situation and can have no idea how they would act or what they would feel. It is entirely reasonable to judge, in my view, that Michael’s love for his wife is not diminished or affected by his picking up his life again after being devastated to an extent most of us cannot imagine.

Another question that completely misses the obvious answer is, ‘Why did he wait so long before demanding that her feeding tube be removed?’ Spending twenty seconds thinking about yourself in his shoes should give an answer. How quickly would you want to admit to yourself the gravity of such a situation? How many times would you come to visit and have to leave again without getting any emotional response? How many smiles would you have to see before realising that the face muscles are simply doing what they were designed to do, unprompted by anything that was said or done in the seconds beforehand? How long would it take you to let go? How long would it take you to come to terms with the loss of a spouse?

Yet another question asked about Michael is: ‘Why does he not simply waive his right to guardianship and give his parents care of Terri, since they have said they will care for her?’ It seems logical, until one poses a few questions. If Michael Schiavo believes, as he says he does, that his wife would not want to live in this circumstance, how would his waiving his right to deal with this be the right thing to do? How would it be any better than divorce? Why would that produce a better solution? And if, indeed, she would wish to be allowed to die, to keep her alive under the care of someone else would be nothing short of betrayal by the man she married. In many ways, it’s harder doing what he’s doing, fighting for his rights and standing up for his wife, than it would be to walk away and leave the whole situation behind.

As Terri’s guardian, Michael Schiavo is not in an enviable position. The responsibility that he holds and the stress he is under is greater than most of us will ever experience. He has essentially been vilified across his vast country for making the most difficult choice of his life. It appears some conservatives wish to make this as distressing as possible for him. Meanwhile, his parents are portrayed as being on the moral high ground, fighting to avert tragedy. And I am sympathetic to their trauma. As a parent myself, I find the idea that my child could predecease me unthinkable. Terri’s parents are doing what would come naturally to every parent, holding onto any hope for their daughter’s life they think there could be.

As I write this, I am watching news reports of emotional people, protesting outside her hospice, making demands of government, angrily voicing their opposition to what they say is a tragedy. But the real tragedy here is not happening now. It happened on February 25th, 1990, when Terri Schiavo suffered severe brain damage through oxygen deprivation. Contrary to what we hear at the moment, what Terri Schiavo has is not life; merely existence. Real life left her fifteen years ago. Michael Schiavo today speaks as though he were Terri herself, saying ‘Let me go.’

And in her final days, we should all leave him to it.