Poling: Two Cheers for Anna Nicole Smith
Her tragic death notwithstanding, the career of Anna Nicole Smith delighted plastic surgeons, dieters and reality TV fans, not to mention readers of Playboy magazine and patrons of strip clubs. It was one of these last, J. Howard Marshall II, who became Mr. Anna Nicole Smith in the waning years of his life.
The facts are well-known to most readers: Ms. Smith, then 26, married Mr. Marshall, then 89, in 1994. Upon Marshall’s death 13 months later, his son E. Pierce Marshall contested Ms. Smith’s claim to half of his estate; the case ultimately wound up in the Supreme Court, which decided in Ms. Smith’s favor in 2006. Although both Ms. Smith and Mr. Marshall are now deceased, Mr. Marshall’s estate continued to pursue the matter, and the Supreme Court has announced that it will once again hear the case.
Oddly enough, this turn of events presents us once again with the reality that for a brief, shining moment, Ms. Smith replaced Michael Schiavo as the poster child for family values.
Obviously the disposition of a will can involve complicated decisions, and family tension is by no mean unknown in this sort of situation. Probate lawyers can explain all of the variables to anyone who’s interested in them, but the basic principle of law and the clear message of the Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling is this: If the choice is between a spouse and another family member, the spouse wins.
Much the same conflict was operative in the Schiavo case: Ultimately the courts decided that when Terry Schiavo’s husband and parents disagreed over her medical care, it was her husband’s right as her spouse to make decisions for her despite her parents’ disagreement with his choices.
Oddly enough, in the Schiavo case it was my colleagues who share my convictions about marriage who concluded that the importance of preserving life confers the right to meddle in decisions that rightly belong to spouses.
But our nation’s understanding of marriage is firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage of our society: We read in Genesis that “The man will leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Christians put further weight on this concept by virtue of Jesus’ citation of this text, followed by the clear declaration that “They are no longer two, but one” (Matthew 19:6).
In a very real sense, then, people who get married adopt the new identity of their marital union, an identity which replaces those of their families of origin. This principle of “leaving and cleaving” is among the most important to teach in premarital counseling, and the most difficult to work out, especially when two (or more) sets of parents demand a couple’s presence on the same holiday. The concept is simple, though: In temporal perspective, a man is his mother’s son before he is his wife’s husband, but from a legal (and moral) perspective precisely the reverse is true.
Autopsy results confirmed that Terry Schiavo’s parents — understandably, and like many who grieve harm caused to a loved one — had adopted an unrealistic appraisal of their daughter’s mental presence. Yet even if the autopsy had confirmed their hopes, it would still have been unjust to grant them the right to trump their son-in-law’s right to made difficult medical decisions under the circumstances people face so often — those where medical information is incomplete and certainty is impossible, yet some decision must be made.
In the same way, one might argue that Mr. Marshall chose a deeply unwise, selfish and irresponsible path by devoting his time and resources to a piece of eye candy rather than investing in his family, or charitable causes, or even his golf swing. But “unwise” and “illegal” are two radically different concepts. Which of us would want each of our life’s judgment calls submitted to scrutiny in a court of law by anyone who could claim an interest?
As the father of two beautiful daughters, I fully expect that my children will make decisions with their future husbands with which I will disagree, some even that will cause me deep pain and difficulty. But in a free society, we have the right to make decisions both bad and good, and without needing to secure the permission of our parents or children. According to a traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage, the husband-wife “unit” makes these decision together, and our court system does this remarkable notion the honor of upholding it in cases such as those of Terry Schiavo and Anna Nicole Smith.