In a recent TCS article on the Terri Schiavo case, Elizabeth Whelan, president of The American Council on Science and Health, says we should call “call tripe when tripe is served.” I wholeheartedly agree which is why I believe we should start by calling Ms. Whelan on the tripe — and the liberal ladling of ad hominem — that she has served. I realize that the media often calls upon Ms. Wheldan precisely because she is known for giving colorful misrepresentations of her ideological enemies. But such nonsense directed toward the respected neurologist Dr. William P. Cheshire Jr. should not go unchallenged.
Ms. Whelan begins by claiming to know the “harsh facts” of Terri Schiavo’s brain state, yet appears to be confused about the difference between a “permanent vegetative state” and a persistent vegetative state in which a patient may be minimally conscious. As Dr. Cheshire correctly notes in his affidavit, actions taken against a minimally conscious patient may be “unintentionally neglectful.” Because a misdiagnosis of her condition could lead to cruel and unethical treatment, it is imperative to make as accurate an estimation of her condition as is possible. The record shows, however, that some of the most basic neurological tests have not been used in making the diagnosis.
Whelan then goes on to attack Dr. Cheshire’s status as “renowned” by pointing to his “limited publications” which focus on the areas of “headache pain and his opposition to stem cell research.” What she left out was that he has also published articles on, among other topics, Parkinson’s, trigeminal neuralgia, hypotensive akathisia, Spinal cord injuries, and cysticercosis. A closer look would have also revealed that out of the fifteen doctors in the neurology department at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Cheshire has published more articles than a third of his colleagues. Does Whelan take the paucity of Pub-Med citations as evidence that the Mayo Clinic is simply full of second-rate slackers?
Whelan does correctly point out that Dr. Cheshire never conducted a physical examination of Ms. Schiavo and that he did not perform neurological tests. That is certainly true. In fact, as Dr. Cheshire makes clear, Ms. Shiavo hasn’t had a neurological examination in over three years. If Whelan had bothered to actually read Dr. Cheshire’s affidavit rather than basing her opinion on press reports she might have noticed that he recommended more testing precisely to avoid the potentially unethical situation of starving to death a woman who may be minimally conscious.
Ms. Whelan also points out that Dr. Cheshire is a member of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD)*, implying that this is evidence that he is “guided by a personal agenda.” Perhaps if Ms. Whelan had set aside her own personal agenda long enough to gather some basic facts she would have discovered that the approaches to Christian bioethics, including those of CBHD, do not necessarily include the removal of nutrition and dehydration for a person in a permanent vegetative state. Dr. Cheshire’s religious views on the issue are moot. What is at issue is the unresolved medical question of Schiavo’s neurological status. Dr. Cheshire makes it clear that he is not opposed to the removal of nutrition and hydration for patients in a permanent vegetative state. The question is not whether withdrawal of treatment is ethical but whether Ms. Schiavo is in need of further testing in order to make a scientifically informed judgment.
As Ms. Whelan notes, all of us are entitled to our own personal views on the Schiavo case. Some views, such as those of Dr. Cheshire, are based on an objective examination of the facts. Others, such as Ms. Whelan’s, are rooted in an emotional response that is based on an appalling ignorance of the relevant scientific evidence. Expressing such an opinion on a third-rate blog would be excusable. But for the president of a consumer education consortium to do so in
a public forum is simply embarrassing.
- Hugh Hewitt: “Dr. Whelan originally published her broadside at Dr. Chesire at TechCentralStation, where the op-ed ended with the stange tag line: “She is a life-long Republican.” And that fact is of significance because…? She’s claiming junk science, but she’s writing junk commentary.”
- Confderate Yankee: “Some more “harsh facts” seem to indicate that Dr. Whelan might need a refresher course at the closest available medical school. The part of Dr. Whelan’s statement above in bold (my bold, not the author’s) simply isn’t true.
EEGs–electroencephalograms–measure electrical activity on the surface of the brain only. She cannot categorically state there is no deeper brain function because of EEG results, as EEGs do not measure such.
*Full Disclosure: I am also on the staff at CBHD, though I have never met Dr. Cheshire.