Opinion: Turns out, Thompson knew about Schiavo only too well

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As often seems to happen in the public chaos of major political campaigns, it turns out there’s much more to that apparent Fred Thompson memory loss story from a couple of weeks ago.

You may remember that the closely watched newest Republican candidate was asked about that highly controversial Terri Schiavo right-to-die case in which the husband of a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state wanted to remove her chemical feeding tube, but her parents went to court and then politicians from Gov. Jeb Bush and Congress got into the struggle two years ago.

When Thompson was asked about it recently, he said he didn’t really recall much, and some people clucked and said, how could he not? Well, Thompson was talking with some reporters today and, it turns out, he remembers it too well. He just didn’t want to talk about it because, like a growing number of Americans, he’d gone through a similar end-of-life decision regarding his daughter several years ago.

It probably should not be surprising that a society that cannot agree on when life begins also has yet to fully agree on when life can end. Very few cases reach the courts like Schiavo’s and become...

political cause celebres. Most are handled quietly among family members and doctors.

“I know this is bandied about as a political issue,’ Thompson said to the Associated Press today, ‘and people want to make it such and talk about it in the public marketplace a lot. I am a little bit uncomfortable about that because it’s an intensely personal thing. These things need to be decided by the family, and I was at that bedside, and I had to make those decisions with the rest of my family.”


Thompson’s 38-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Betsy Thompson, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, died in 2002 of an accidental drug overdose six days after being admitted to the hospital unconscious. Thompson’s remarks indicated she had been put on life support systems. His campaign declined to discuss the case further, saying it was too personal and painful.

But the facts are such cases are also very common. The American Hospital Assn. has estimated that about 75% of hospital deaths in America these days are somehow negotiated. That is, someone is seriously injured or ill. Given the advance of medical technology--the automatic breathing machines that even program in regular sighs, the chemical slurries for nutrition, other drugs and machines--the body can be kept functioning, even though the brain may be dead or the prognosis for a return to cognizant life is virtually nil.

Typically, over the course of several days, some treatments are attempted while the doctor and family members discuss the future. Many times they reach the conclusion that the technology is actually prolonging the dying, not the life. A ‘do not resuscitate’ order is signed, and if the heart stops, no measures are attempted to restart it.

Thompson said that as far as he was concerned, ‘It should be decided by families. The federal government and the state government, too--except for the court system--ought to stay out of it.’

Then he added, “I will assure you one thing: No matter which decision you make, you will never know whether or not you made exactly the right decision. So making this into a political football is something that I don’t welcome. And this will probably be the last time I ever address it.”

And in that too, Thompson is like millions of Americans.

--Andrew Malcolm