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Remembering The Spotted Owl: Activism And Terri Schiavo
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
October 22, 2004

Remember the spotted owl?

During the 1980s in the Pacific Northwest, the spotted owl became, for environmentalists, the symbol of everything wrong with the timber industry. For the timber industry, the speckled bird became the symbol of everything wrong with environmentalism.

In the economically depressed, timber industry region where I lived, I often saw bumper stickers suggesting, "Save a logger: Eat a spotted owl".

I asked a friend who was close to the environmental movement what was so darned special about this bird. She patiently explained that there are a whole host of creatures that need untouched old-growth forests in order to hunt, nest, lay eggs - to survive.

Environmental activists chose to focus their campaign, and hang their hopes, on the fate of the spotted owl for a very practical reason: Americans like owls -- at least they like them a lot more than they do the lizards, rodents, slugs, beetles, mosses and lichens that also need untouched, old-growth habitat in order to survive. To get people to care about the forest, activists had to select a symbol people could cuddle up to.

I've thought about the spotted owl quite a bit during the past couple of years. It seems to me that Terri Schiavo has - for disability rights groups and advocates of other causes - become our very own spotted owl.

Please understand, I don't mean to depersonalize Terri and her family's struggle. Far from it.

Rather, I believe Terri, like the spotted owl, has become much more than herself.

In fact, in the minds of many disability rights activists, she has come to represent tens of thousands of people with severe brain-related disabilities. Some are in comas. Some are in what doctors describe as "persistent vegetative states". Others simply do not have caring folks to whom they can communicate their wishes.

Many have been written off as "lives not worth living" or "better off dead". "Do not resuscitate" has likely been stamped in their medical records.

In the past couple of years, disability rights groups and "right to life" groups have rallied around Terri and her family, with a sense of solidarity. For some, Terri is "one of us", in that other people have the power to make life-and-death decisions on her behalf. Others know that we are just one car accident, stroke or heart attack from being in her place.

What Terri's situation has done is spark a very public debate about one's right to live or die, that usually takes the form of quiet discussions in hundreds of hospital wards, nursing home rooms, attorneys offices and hospices across the country and around the world.

Because she has managed to hang on -- against formidable odds -- for the past 14 years, Terri has given us time to focus the attention of political candidates for all parties, along with lawyers and lawmakers, medical professionals and ethicists, presidents and prime ministers - even Pope John Paul II -- on the plight of so many others in her circumstances.

This can only help others and possibly help any of us thrown into the same situation.

At a minimum, it has presented countless opportunities for us to patiently educate others as to what is so special about this one woman and her family.

It is important for us to give Terri's parents all the support we can muster. It is also important for us, as advocates, to avoid turning Terri into a mere symbol of a cause, while forgetting about the big picture.

In the same way that those who care about the environment must consider all of the forests' creatures, it is important for us to pay attention to all of the other "Terri Schiavos" that have not had benefit of publicity campaigns, candlelight vigils, or parents who would spend their lives and livelihoods to save one life.

As my environmentalist friend might say, we need to make sure we don't fail to see the forests for the spotted owls.

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