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TURN SCHIAVO FEUDS INTO REFORMS

You're entitled to your own opinion, an old debater's saying goes, but not your own facts. Whoever made up that line never imagined the Terri Schiavo case.

The death of the 41-year-old woman's body years after the destruction of her cerebral cortex has pushed her story off page one. But the arguing over when and whether her feeding tube should have been removed goes on, complete with new evidence to bolster each side's positions.

Stung by major polls that showed most Americans supported removing Schiavo's feeding tube after her cerebral brain activity had ceased, the pro-tube Christian Defense Coalition commissioned a new Zogby Poll that appears to support keeping her tube engaged. Asked whether food and water should be denied to a "disabled person if they are not terminally ill and have no written directive," 80 percent of respondents said no. The same poll also finds that, by a 3 to 1 margin, Americans want elected officials to order a feeding tube to remain in place "if there is conflicting testimony surrounding the case."

Actually, those results by Zogby, one of the nation's most respected pollsters, show the good sense of the American people. They also avoid the central issue of contention in the Schiavo case: Sadly, Terri Schiavo was more than "disabled."

Was she indeed still alive, or was that just her body functioning without the brain functions that her family and friends knew as Terri Schiavo? To answer that question in the years of Florida court fights surrounding this case, two doctors chosen by Schiavo's parents, two chosen by her husband and one by the court provided expert opinions in court. Three of them said the woman's brain had ceased cognitive function years before. Her cerebral cortex was gone, and her body's visible actions, such as gazing and smiling were reflexes, nature's cruel trick on our emotions.

Only one of the two dissenting doctors, Dr. Bill Hammesfahr, was a neurologist. (The other, Dr. William Maxfield, was a radiologist, according to news reports.) Hammesfahr claimed in court and on talk shows that Terri could recover with some therapies that had not been tried.

He drew criticism from other neurologists, who dismissed him as a self-promoter whose therapies have not held up under the peer review required for widespread use. Hammesfahr says his critics haven't taken the time to understand his treatments.

The courts, faced with the thankless task of resolving the family dispute over Schiavo's fate, found Hammesfahr's claims to be without merit. For this they have been beaten up as evil "activist" judges by such self-styled paragons of virtue as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart probably put it best when he said of Congress' activist efforts to force the reinsertion of Schiavo's tube, "Now we know just how sick you have to be before Congress cares enough about you to take action on your health care."

Of course, it helps politicians to pay attention to you if they can make some sort of political hay out of your misery.

And, ah, what drama the fussing and feuding over Schiavo's fate percolated up for the ratings-hungry world of 24-hour talk radio and cable news.

Enough. Let Schiavo rest in peace. Her greatest legacy may be the dialogue and legislation that her tragedy forces the rest of us to engage. It's too late for her case, but there's plenty of time for the rest of us to prepare for cases to come.

After the media frenzy and political grandstanding, we need reflection, investigation and a productive debate about what right-to-die legislation makes the most sense and what the proper relationship should be between the federal and state governments on this issue. We also need to respect our differences in point of view. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. But let's try to agree on one set of facts.