Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 33, Issue 6, pp 405–420 | Cite as

Emmanuel Levinas and the face of Terri Schiavo: bioethical and phenomenological reflections on a private tragedy and public spectacle



The controversial case of Terri Schiavo came to a close on March 31, 2005, with her death following the removal of a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube. This event followed years of controversy and social upheaval. Voices from across the entire political and cultural spectrums filled the airwaves and op-ed pages of major newspapers. Protests ensued outside of Ms. Schiavo’s care facility. Ms. Schiavo’s parents published videos of their daughter on the internet in an effort to prove that she was not in a vegetative state and could potentially recover. There is a certain mystery to the entire controversy given the fact that, legally, it was largely a matter of settled law. Precedent cases and legal statutes clearly set out the proper procedures and decisions to be followed in this case. Nonetheless, powerful challenges and virulent opposition to these standards arose. Through an investigation of this case as well as a comparative study of the case of Dax Cowart (in particular, the documentary depictions of Dax Cowart’s case) and of a photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin, I plan to investigate the source of these social upheavals and hypothesize that they were largely the result of a phenomenological reaction to the human face.


Bioethics Phenomenology End of life Emmanuel Levinas 


  1. 1.
    Lingis, Alphonso. 1994. Foreign bodies. New York, London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Annas, George. 2006. “Culture of life” politics at the bedside—the case of Terri Schiavo. In Ethical health care, eds. Patricia Illingworth and Wendy E. Parmet, 103–109. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Critchley, Simon. 1992. The ethics of deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Burggraeve, Roger. 1999. Violence and the vulnerable face of the other: The vision of Emmanuel Levinas on moral evil and our responsibility. Journal of Social Philosophy 30: 29–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ziarek, Ewa Pƚonowska. 2001. An ethics of dissensus: Postmodernity, feminism, and the politics of radical democracy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Waldenfels, Bernhard. 2002. Levinas and the face of the other. In The Cambridge companion to Levinas, eds. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, 63–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Lingis, Alphonso. 1994. The community of those who have nothing in common. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Rachels, James. 1975. Active and passive euthanasia. New England Journal of Medicine 292: 78–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Jones, Therese. 2004. The medium is the message: Documenting the story of Dax Cowart. In Cultural sutures: Medicine and media, ed. L.D. Friedman, 315–330. Durham and London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Schwenger, Peter. 2000. Corpsing the image. Critical Inquiry 26: 395–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Kristeva, Julia. 2012. The severed head. Trans. Jody Gladding. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Kristeva, Julia. 1991. Strangers to ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Kristeva, Julia. 1993. Nations without nationalism. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Caputo, Jacques. 1993. Against ethics: Contributions to a poetics of obligation with constant reference to deconstruction. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Health Administration, College of Nursing and Health ProfessionsDrexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

Personalised recommendations