Terri Schiavo, the Brain Injured and Church Teaching

The Catholic teaching is clear: “The ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted.” (CCC 2279)

Terri Schiavo
Terri Schiavo (photo: terrischiavo.org)

Two Jesuit priests, Father John J. Paris, a professor emeritus at Boston College, and Father Kevin Wildes, a professor at St. Joseph’s University, recently published an article, “Making an idol of brain-injured patients.” The priests were responding to an article written by Charles C. Camosy, a professor at Fordham University, titled, “Latest research on vegetative state calls for new civil rights movement.”

Professor Camosy’s piece underscores how medical evaluations, treatment protocols and the legal protections are effectively unchanging — even deteriorating — for people with cognitive disabilities. Specifically, he was referring to those in brain injured conditions similar to my sister, Terri Schiavo.

For those who do not remember, in 1990, at the age of 26, Terri experienced a still-unexplained collapse while at home with her husband, Michael Schiavo, who subsequently became her legal guardian. Terri required only love, care, and food and water by a feeding tube, since she had difficulty swallowing as a result of her brain injury. She did not require artificial life support and she was not dying of any disease or condition. Nonetheless, Terri’s life was intentionally ended in 2005 by her husband and a court system that deprived her of food and water, causing her to die from dehydration and starvation.

The substance of Professor Camosy’s article is based on the promising research in the area of neuroscience from a 2015 book by Dr. Joseph Fins, Rights Come to Mind.

Dr. Fins is a physician and the chief of medical ethics at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He is responsible for extensive research exposing how longstanding norms and methods assessing and treating the brain-injured — especially those who have been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) — are perilously out-of-date.

Fins relates stories of several patients thought to be in a PVS — a condition where patients are unable to communicate or have any meaningful awareness — who were misdiagnosed. After some time, physicians learned that these patients had a higher level of consciousness and/or alertness than originally diagnosed. Past studies have found that upward of 50% of patients thought to be in a PVS are incorrectly diagnosed, further supporting Dr. Fins’ research.

To be clear, in most, if not all, cases, the PVS patient is neither terminal nor are they in need of care that any reasonable person would consider “extraordinary.” Frequently, these patients require a feeding tube to deliver their food and water because their brain injury makes it difficult for them consume solid food.

So, why is the research by Dr. Fins important? It is because the medical community and families who do not want to care for these PVS patients have the legal authority in all 50 states to end a PVS patient’s life by removing/denying their feeding tube, just like my sister’s situation.

Camosy expresses the necessity for the medical profession and caretakers to take a step back and evaluate the need for wide-ranging modifications in how we care for these individuals. The change he calls for is so drastic that he likens it to a new civil rights movement.

In this article, Camosy identifies the Catholic Church as an important ally in this battle for fundamental change to protect these individuals and how the Church’s teachings support the continuing care of these patients.

Camosy cites Pope St. John Paul II’s 2004 allocution — or teaching statement — to the International Conference on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific and Ethical Dilemmas,” which clarified that food and water, even if provided by a feeding tube, are not medical treatments and should be considered ordinary and basic care which is required to respect a person’s God given human dignity.

Enter Fathers Wildes and Paris, who take issue with Professor Camosy’s understanding of the Church’s position regarding the PVS patient and argue that starving and dehydrating these defenseless souls is not necessarily an illicit act or a violation of Church teachings.

Ignoring the weight of Pope John Paul II’s allocution, the priests instead turn to moral theologians and Pope Pius XII’s 1957 statement to the International Congress of Anesthesiologists entitled “Prolonging Life” to support their position. They suggest that maintaining a feeding tube is “medical treatment” and not “ordinary care” unless there is “hope of improved health.” Thus, if there is no hope of improvement, the care is not “ordinary” and there is no moral obligation to provide PVS patients with food and water.

Indeed, in 2007, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith evaluated Pope Pius XII’s statement and confirmed that it was not in conflict with Pope John Paul II’s 2004 allocution, thereby reaffirming the moral duty to care for PVS patients who require a feeding tube.

The CDF determined that there is no inconsistency between Pope John Paul II’s allocution and the teachings of Pope Pius XII because Pope Pius XII was referring to patients who are dying from an underlying issue. Nowhere in his teaching did Pope Pius XII suggest that it was morally acceptable to starve to a quicker death a patient suffering from a fatal issue. The Church has maintained a consistent teaching, expressly articulated by Pope John Paul II, that food and water are always ordinary care.

Unfortunately, Fathers Wildes and Paris defile Church teaching even more with a regurgitation of Terri’s autopsy report. Terri’s autopsy is not relevant and apparently is an attempt by the priests to substantiate their position. It was the same tactic used by Michael Schiavo, Terri’s estranged husband and guardian, and all of his right-to-die sycophants, to justify her death.

Citing from the report, Fathers Wildes and Paris write that the autopsy proved that Terri’s condition was “consistent with PVS.” However, it is medically impossible for an autopsy to determine whether a person is “consistent with” the PVS condition because it is a clinical diagnosis — meaning, the patient must be alive to make the diagnosis. This “finding” is pure conjecture of the pathologist who performed the autopsy, lacking any scientific integrity.

Conveniently, Fathers Wildes and Paris omitted this from their article, not to mention that while Terri was alive 40 medical professionals (some of the most prominent neurologists in the U.S.) submitted affidavits to the court stating that she was not in a PVS and could have been helped by the aggressive diagnostics that were available but were denied to her at that time.

But again, Terri’s diagnosis is irrelevant to the fact that her lack of care was in clear violation of Church teaching. It makes absolutely no difference whether Terri was or was not in a PVS when you apply her medical condition to the ethical guidelines of the Church. She was not dying; she was killed by lack of “ordinary care.” Use of her autopsy by the priests is simply an attempt to justify her death and the deaths of others like her.

Most incredible, however, is that the priests are disregarding the purpose of Professor Camosy’s article — PVS patients are not only being misdiagnosed but are being killed as a consequence of this misdiagnosis!

Fathers Wildes and Paris conclude their article stating that, “The Schiavo case was a source of a great deal of misinformation with politicians and others deliberately misusing medical terms for ideological purposes.”

I could not agree more, but it is Fathers Wildes and Paris who are to blame for the great source of misinformation. It is their deliberate muddling of the teachings of the Church that should be of legitimate concern.

Similar to that of Bishop Robert Lynch, the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg at the time of Terri’s case (and death), Fathers Wildes and Paris are intentionally misrepresenting both Terri’s condition and Catholic teaching related to her situation and others like her.

Indeed, reading the priests’ position and the confusion it will certainly create among the faithful, you would think it was coming from proponents of the culture of death rather than two who should be defenders of the faith.

The consequence of these poor moral leaders representing the Church is not only my sister’s death but the deaths of countless others whose families and medical providers will think Catholic teaching could somehow endorse the fatal starvation and dehydration of a vulnerable patient.

Fathers Wildes and Paris, and others who condone this type of treatment, are complicit in the barbaric death of our medically helpless. They bring scandal to the Universal Church and are aiding in the death of patients who ought to be cared for, thereby prolonging this continuing tragedy for those seeking moral instruction on matters of life and death.


Bobby Schindler is the brother of Terri Schiavo and president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.