PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — With time running out for Terri Schiavo, the disabled woman whose family has been trying to save her from euthanasia, James Sedlak stepped in front of a crowd of supporters outside the woman’s hospice and held up a couple of carrots.
“As I was driving here this morning, just before I turned down this street, I noticed there was a Winn-Dixie across the street, so I stopped and picked up these carrots,” said Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League. “Now, you may wonder why I picked up these carrots.
“These are vegetables,” he told those gathered for a prayer vigil March 12 outside the Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice where Terri is residing. “These carrots can said to be in a ‘persistent vegetative state.’ They will never become human beings. Terri Schiavo is a human being. She will never become a vegetable … She was conceived as a human being in her mother’s womb. She was born as a human being. She married as a human being, and she lies now in that building across the street as a human being. …Terri is a person, and she is entitled to all the rights and privileges of any other person in this country.”
The point was made by others as well, from as far away as the Vatican.
“From all worthy accounts, Schiavo may be considered a living human person, deprived of full consciousness, whose juridical rights must be recognized, respected, and defended,” said Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life. “The removal of the gastric feeding tube from this person, in these conditions, may be considered direct euthanasia.”
The Vatican generally does not speak out on individual cases. But Bishop Sgreccia said Schiavo’s predicament was too important to ignore.
“Silence in this case might be interpreted as approval, with consequences that would go well beyond the specific case,” said the bishop, who noted that Schiavo seems to be in a state of “minimum consciousness.”
His was the third statement on the issue out of the Vatican. Earlier, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, had issued two statements. “Where is human compassion?” he said March 7. “No one would ever wish to witness the suffering of another, especially a loved one. And I am sure that no one could ever choose to witness suffering or a cruel death being inflicted upon another, especially one who is loved. How, then, have we come to this point?”
Cardinal Martino noted that the state of Florida has laws to protect animals from going through “a cruel death.” He further noted that only God can be the arbiter of life.
As the Register went to press, Terri Schiavo’s family and thousands of supporters throughout the country were hoping that something or someone would intervene to prevent a court-sanctioned feeding tube removal March 18. Bishop Sgreccia predicted that if Schiavo’s starvation is allowed, it would create a legal precedent, leading to euthanasia as a right by the courts with “serious consequences” for those who are vulnerable in the United States and elsewhere.
That sentiment was echoed by the president of the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, who said “the floodgates” of euthanasia would be opened if her tube is removed.
Terri’s parents and siblings were at the prayer vigil, and Robert Schindler, her father, told the crowd that he had spoken to Mel Gibson, director of The Passion of the Christ, who sent a faxed statement on March 11 that offered support for the Schindlers’ efforts to stop the “cruel starvation” from occurring. Gibson also urged Michael to “sign the care of his wife over to her parents so she can be properly cared for.”
Schindler and his wife, Mary, have been engaged in a seven-year legal battle over their daughter, who is not dying, has no terminal illness and is not on life support, but suffered severe brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped beating and cut off oxygen to her brain. Although she is not in a coma and can breathe on her own, courts have found her to be in a “persistent vegetative state.”
Her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, who has two children with another woman, has been trying to get her feeding tube to be removed.
The Schindlers want him removed as her legal guardian so they can take care of their daughter. They believe she might recover if given proper therapy. They also dispute Michael Schiavo’s contention that she once told him that she never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means.
The Schindlers’ efforts to save their daughter or provide spiritual care for her have hit several roadblocks in Florida Circuit Court Judge George Greer’s courtroom. He recently issued the following decisions:
" Denied Terri’s parents’ request that she be allowed to receive Viaticum, holy Communion for the dying, by mouth. Judge Greer ruled that if Terri is to be given Communion, it must be done through her feeding tube.
" Refused to allow a 60-day stay of removal of the feeding tube to allow an investigation by the state’s Department of Children and Families, which had received reports of alleged abuse and neglect complaints regarding Terri and her treatment.
" Rejected hearing any of the almost three dozen neurologists, doctors and other medical experts who filed affidavits saying that Terri should be re-tested based on new evaluation and therapeutic technologies that can significantly impact brain-damaged people. Bishop Sgreccia pointed out that expert assessments and examinations were not carried out to find out Terri’s precise neurological state.
" Refused to hear any motions that would permit Terri’s parents to feed their daughter by mouth if her feeding tube were to be removed.
The Schindlers have also been hoping that a change in Florida or federal law would save their daughter’s life. On March 8, U.S. Congressman David Weldon, R-Fla., introduced a bill called the “Incapacitated Person’s Legal Protection Act,” which would explicitly clarify fundamental due process rights for those who are incapacitated, are under court-ordered removal of nutrition and hydration and have no written advanced medical directive in effect. The bill’s sponsor in the Senate is Florida Republican Mel Martinez.
“Terri Schiavo, and men and women like her,” said Weldon, “deserve the same due process rights that death row inmates are granted. When a court is making a life or death decision for a disabled person who has been charged with no crime, shouldn’t they be afforded independent counsel to speak on their behalf?”
At press time, it wasn’t clear whether the legislation will be heard and voted on in time before the March 18 deadline.
Pro-life advocates, sensing that a loss in the fight for Schiavo would be a major step toward euthanasia, have sent petitions by the thousands to lawmakers. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s office has reported that he has received more than 50,000 e-mails and more than 100,000 petitions, urging him to try to save Terri’s life.
Private citizens also have stepped up to try to do what they can to help Terri. A wealthy California businessman offered $1 million to Michael Schiavo to walk away as Terri’s legal guardian and hand over care to her parents. An anonymous Florida businessman allegedly offered $10 million. Schiavo refused to accept either offer.
“It’s not about the money,” he said during a radio interview on March 11. “It’s about Terri’s wishes.”
He added that there is “nothing out there that’s going to help Terri,” and he warned that “Big Brother” is going to start to interfere with people’s personal decisions on how they want to die.
The March 12 vigil outside Terri’s hospice drew about 100 people, including students who traveled from Christendom College in Virginia. Speakers included Father Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, and Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, the spiritual director for the Schindler family.
One of the most poignant talks was by Kate Adamson, who spoke about how she suffered a double brainstem stroke in 1995. She spent seven weeks in the intensive care unit, was paralyzed from the neck down, couldn’t speak and had a feeding tube inserted into her stomach, she said.
“They considered me a vegetable, unconscious,” she said. “They assumed I was already dead, except for one, pesky detail; my heart kept beating. Stubborn, like me. It didn’t know when to quit.”
She said she went through something similar to what Terri is going through — she felt helpless, couldn’t speak and was considered unresponsive — but Adamson pointed out one big difference that helped her to live: her devoted husband, who fought to save her and put up a sign above her hospital bed that said: “This is a human being lying here. Please treat her as a person. She understands everything being said to her.”
“Michael Schiavo says starving Terri is a kindness. It’s not,” said Adamson, who, after extensive therapy is now able to walk and talk, but is still paralyzed on the left side of her body. “Have any of you gone without food for a couple of days? When I was in the hospital, my feeding tube was turned off for eight days. I suffered excruciating misery in silence. It was one of the most painful experiences you can imagine. If they want to kill Terri, they should have the guts to put a gun to her head. Does that sound repulsive and violent? They should be even more repulsed with the violent torture of slowly and painfully starving this woman to death.”
Carlos Briceño writes
from Seminole, Florida.