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Haleigh Poutre is no Terri Schiavo
By Cathy Young | January 30, 2006
THE CASE of Haleigh Poutre, the battered child at the center
of a legal and medical dispute in Massachusetts, is so horrific
as to evoke medieval tableaux of hell. This 11-year-old girl
was failed by all the adults in her life, from her biological
and adoptive families to the social workers and medical professionals.
Haleigh, who seems to be emerging from her four-month-long
coma and has been moved from intensive care to a rehab center,
would have been dead today if the stepfather charged in her
near-fatal beating had not fought (most likely for self-interested
reasons) to keep her alive.
This tragedy should have been a national outrage. Yet it
has gotten only scant attention. Syndicated columnist and
blogger Michelle Malkin blames this on a ''post-Schiavo syndrome":
After last year's pitched battle over whether Terri Schiavo
should be kept alive in a vegetative state, most people shudder
at the thought of a repeat. Malkin may well be right -- but
if so, the blame rests with the right-to-life advocates who
made Schiavo their cause célèbre.
To put it simply: Haleigh Poutre is no Terri Schiavo. Schiavo
had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, and
had undergone a barrage of tests showing that she had no higher
brain functioning and no consciousness -- a fact on which
all unbiased medical experts agreed. (Her case had also undergone
repeated court review.) Haleigh had been in a vegetative state
since Sept. 11. After the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that
she could be taken off life support, the girl began to show
Dr. Nancy Childs, a renowned brain injury specialist in Austin,
Texas, told The Boston Globe that 16 percent of brain-injured
adults recover after three months of unconsciousness. Neurologists
also say that children, with their still-growing and more
elastic brains, have a better prospect for recovery from brain
injuries than adults.
Yet, shockingly, the state Department of Social Services
had first sought to terminate Haleigh's life support only
three weeks after her hospitalization, after doctors declared
her to be virtually brain-dead. Because her records are sealed,
we don't know what tests were done to reach this conclusion.
It certainly looks like the DSS showed unseemly haste in wanting
life support discontinued.
This is the same DSS which had previously overlooked repeated
signs that Haleigh was being severely abused. Adoptive mother
Holli Strickland, who later committed suicide after being
charged with assaulting Haleigh, had managed to convince the
social workers that the girl's numerous physical injuries
were self-inflicted. (If the child was so emotionally disturbed
that she was constantly harming herself, shouldn't she have
been placed into treatment?)
Some caution that the high cost of caring for comatose patients
may become a financial incentive to end life support. Did
such considerations influence the decision-making at the DSS?
All of this warrants investigation. But, contrary to the overheated
claims of right-to-life advocates, the officials and doctors
are not death-happy ghouls: They were quick to order new tests
after Haleigh's biological mother reported that she saw some
signs of improvement.
All of us -- journalists, politicians, concerned citizens
-- must make sure that Haleigh gets every chance at life she
can have. I would suggest, however, that the vocal champions
of Terri Schiavo's ''right to live" stay away from this
case. After the falsehoods and the hysteria they propagated
about Schiavo, their involvement here could only do harm.
The ''save Terri" brigade turned a tragedy into a macabre
circus. Politicians such as Representative Tom Delay, a Texas
Republican, and pundits such as Fox News's Sean Hannity embraced
patently absurd claims that Schiavo was able to communicate
and even talk. They made wildly misleading claims about the
medical credentials of ''experts" who said Schiavo could
be conscious. They asserted that Schiavo's coma may have been
caused by abuse from her husband, Michael.
With their cries of ''medical terrorism" and their comparisons
to Nazi Germany, these so-called champions of life created
an atmosphere in which some of their supporters made death
threats not only to Michael Schiavo but to judges and legislators
who had been on the ''wrong" side of the dispute.
This kind of support is the last thing Haleigh Poutre needs.
Haleigh's cause should be championed -- by those who have
the moral authority and the credibility to speak about it.
This case raises many disturbing issues, from the efficacy
of child protection to care for comatose patients. It deserves
to be in the spotlight; it does not deserve to be turned into
Terri Schiavo II.