Five years since the court-ordered murder of Terri Schindler Schiavo, I can still see the vase of flowers next to her bedside. The vase was filled with water, keeping the beautiful blooms resplendent. Terri had gone 13 days without water or food. She was literally withering before our eyes in the hours before her death. Her dying was not a peaceful and gentle process. In all my years as a priest, I had never seen anything like this. Her face showed emotions of terror combined with sadness. She died in a Florida hospice on March 31, five years ago.
Wednesday is Terri’s Day, a day when congregations and people of faith all over the country remember this woman whose life was cut short by the culture of death. On that day at 5pm, I will be the celebrant and homilist of the National Mass for Terri at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla. We will pray with Terri’s family for all those in situations like hers.
Five years after Terri’s murder, the world has become an even more dangerous and cynical place.
Terri died on Easter Thursday. Liturgically, the Church considers the time from the Easter Vigil through the Sunday after Easter as one “Easter Day.” Terri suffered as the Church meditated on the sufferings of Christ, and she died as the Church celebrated his resurrection. Her anniversary this year takes place within Holy Week. We are assured that Terri shared in Jesus’ victory over death, and that should bring us comfort. But to look around us and see how strong the culture of death has become should send us all to our knees in prayer — and out to the streets in action.
Terri’s life and terrible death have apparently become, for some, a laughing matter. Anyone who saw Fox Television’s “The Family Guy” was asked to find humor in Terri’s situation. “What an ugly little bugger,” went the lyrics to a song. “Maybe we should just unplug her.” Besides being grotesque, the vile cartoon was built on fiction, not fact, and helped to perpetuate the lie that allowed so many people to accept Terri’s death as a good thing.
Doctors in “Family Guy” introduce us to all the machines that were supposed to be keeping Terri alive. But Terri was not kept alive on machines, and I didn’t see any of those machines in her room. She had a simple feeding tube inserted at mealtimes to supply nutrition and water. She was sustained by the very things that keep you and me alive: food and water. And love. Terri was surrounded by the love of her parents, Bob and Mary, and of her brother and sister, Bobby Schindler and Suzanne Vitadamo.
Terri responded to me and others around her. She smiled and laughed when her father kissed her and his mustache tickled her face. When her mother asked her a question, I heard her trying to say something. She was not able to speak words, but she returned her mom’s kiss.
When I told her I wanted to pray with her and give her a blessing, she closed her eyes and, at the end of the prayer, opened them again. She was not a “vegetable.” She was a living person who was being starved to death. This was murder.
After Terri’s death, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed that people like Terri, and those who are much worse off — including those who are not expected to recover — are not to be deprived of food and water. But our laws governing these matters today are devoid of humanity and of the basic sense of justice that this norm embodies. That’s why each and every one of us has to accept responsibility for what happened to Terri, and work to ensure it does not happen again.
Some people thought that the problem in Terri’s case was that she had never explicitly written down how she would want to be treated if she became unable to speak for herself, and thus it was up to the legal system to make the determination. Proponents of the “living will” sprang into action to make sure everyone signed one. But not many people realize that the whole concept of the living will was initiated by the euthanasia movement.
The problem today is not that one might be given unwanted treatments, but that one might be refused wanted treatments and even basic care. It makes much more sense to sign a “Will to Live,” which was designed by the National Right to Life Committee and allows people to appoint a proxy who will advocate for morally appropriate care.
If Terri had had the opportunity to sign a Will to Live, she might still be smiling and laughing with her mother, brother and sister, and she would have mourned the loss of her father last year. You can find a Will to Live here.
We can protect ourselves and our loved ones with a Will to Live, but we will only be successful in extending this protection to everyone if we fight the culture of death in the political arena. Every person devoted to the cause of life must become involved: Register to vote and make sure your family and friends are registered; learn the pro-life or pro-death positions of every candidate, and spread the word. Vote in every primary and, come November, when three dozen senators and every member of the House of Representatives are up for re-election, make your feelings known in the voting booth.
The fifth anniversary of Terri’s death coincides with two other milestone anniversaries: It’s been 10 years since the world lost one of its most powerful defenders of life, Cardinal John J. O’Connor, and 15 years since Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which spoke of the “sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end” and affirmed “the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.”
Terri’s rights were not respected, which is why Priests for Life and Terri’s family established “Terri’s Day” two years ago. Our aim is to promote education, prayer and activism to counter discrimination against the disabled.
I urge all readers of NCRegister.com, along with churches, schools and pro-life organizations, to observe this day. Terri’s senseless and cruel death can transform all of us into champions of life.
Father Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life.