Exploiting the tragedy of Terri Schiavo

MAYBE YOU know the feeling - that you're about to see or hear something that's really someone else's private business, and it makes you embarrassed and uncomfortable. You're a sucker for human drama in all forms, but you'd rather not be caught gawking.

I'm a nosy newspaper guy, but I have this reaction a lot - in personal experience, from time to time, but more often in the shared experience of national "stories" that spill out of one family's living room into millions of living rooms, via television. Sorry, but I haven't become a reality TV fan; my mother told me it was impolite to stare. I found the early rounds of American Idol, where bad karaoke singers perform, sad and pathetic. I can't bear to watch.

I've had a similar reaction to the Terri Schiavo spectacle.

I know: The Schiavo story is not entertainment. It's a real human story that has captivated the nation and the world. Everyone is talking about it. The president of the United States stuck his nose into it. His brother, the governor of Florida, has been sticking his nose into it for years. It's a landmark national story.

I think it's a landmark national tragedy and a measure of where we are as a culture.

It shows, for one thing, how the line between television news and television entertainment is dust.

What we have here is a grotesque manipulation of a real human story - a private, family tragedy - for political and commercial value. A real human story - an incredibly sad one - has been offered as drama, and politicians have been more than happy to steal a part of the show to exploit its religious overtones.

This looks like red-hot hatred between in-laws dressed up as a story of high public interest, a family argument about the life or death of a brain-damaged woman turned into a television series.

Will Terri live, or will she die?

Will Michael be exposed as a callous husband eager to move on with his life?

Will Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, somehow regain custody of their daughter?

Will a miracle occur? Will Terri rise from her permanent vegetative state on Easter Sunday?

Stay tuned, America.

When this case first started to clear the local news fence in Florida and go national, it stood out because, for one thing, there was a disagreement between Terri Schiavo's husband and her parents about whether the feeding tube should be removed. The woman could breath on her own, but she needed food and water to stay alive. That seemed unusual, as these right-to-die stories go.

And yet, the doctors kept saying "permanent vegetative state."

The parents kept saying Terri Schiavo could get better, that a miracle would occur.

The husband kept saying that it was not his incapacitated wife's wish to be kept alive.

But she has been kept alive for 15 years.

I made up my mind about this case a while ago, even though it was none of my business.

I believed Michael Schiavo. I couldn't imagine his wife, during a reflective moment, saying to her husband: "Michael, if anything happens to me, don't you dare pull the plug. Keep me alive as long as possible, even if I am completely unaware of my surroundings and tests show extensive damage to my cerebral cortex. I want to make you and my family suffer, and I want a prolonged court battle over whether I live or die. And I want people to see me in my bed on national television."

The husband trumps the parents, or at least should have. The way our society views it, he would know his wife's wishes best. Michael Schiavo could have divorced Terri and turned her over to her parents years ago. But he didn't. It might be that he really loved her and did not want her to live this way, wanted her to die with some quiet dignity.

The religious conservatives fighting to keep Terri Schiavo alive have been champions of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage - except in this case. In this case, they're perfectly willing to cast it aside and allow the courts - even Congress and the president - to make a decision that should be reserved for a woman's legal and most trusted partner.

And they're even more willing to exploit the most private and painful of family struggles to personal and political ends. I can't watch anymore.