After Terri: Fear of Precedent, Hope for Reform

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — How could Terri Schindler-Schiavo die as the result of the starvation and dehydration that one Vatican official referred to as a “homicide?”

How could courts cite the U.S. Constitution while signing off on the starving death of a person who was not in a coma, could breathe on her own, was not terminally ill and did not leave behind written instructions requesting such a death?

It’s simple, said pro-life leaders and advocates of the disabled: The perception that disabled people are “better off dead” is becoming the norm — with the judicial system’s tacit approval.

“We have gotten to a point where we allow an innocent woman who is not dying to be starved to death in large part because of a ‘quality of life’ mentality that is embraced by our culture,” said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, the director of planning and information for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.  “A ‘quality of life’ mentality says that some lives are worth living and other lives are not, and that is something that humans can judge.”

Today’s culture sometimes assumes that someone with a severe disability has a meaningless life, she said, and the law doesn’t do a good job in protecting innocent human life.

“There ought to be a greater effort to ensure that the people that are helpless and dependent on our care are never legally allowed to be in such a vulnerable position that they can lose their very lives in this unjust way,” she said.

Terri suffered severe brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped beating and cut off oxygen to her brain. Courts had found her to be in a “persistent vegetative state” and agreed with her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, that she had told him and two other members of his family that she never wanted to be kept alive through artificial means.

After seven years of bitter legal wrangling with Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, who wanted to take care of their daughter and felt she could recover if given the proper therapy, Michael finally got his wish to have Terri’s feeding tube permanently removed March 18.  After receiving no nutrition or hydration while an intense battle to save her life played out in the highest levels of government, Terri died on March 31. She was 41.

Michael’s attorney, George Felos, said Michael was at Terri’s beside when she died.

“Mr. Schiavo’s overriding concern here was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity,” said Felos, an expert in so-called “right-to-die” cases. “This death was not for the siblings, and not for the spouse and not for the parents. This was for Terri.”

The Schindlers’ struggle for Terri’s life blossomed into intense media scrutiny and caused Congress to go back to work over the Easter recess in order to pass a bill that might have saved her life, but the courts repeatedly ruled against the Schindlers or turned down a requested hearing.

“Terri Schiavo’s case really isn’t an end-of-life issue,” Ruse said. “It’s how we treat living disabled people. … There is a real risk in our culture that the so-called right to die will become seen as a duty to die, especially if we continue to perpetuate the notion, as some of the judges did in the Terri Schiavo case, that her life was a burden to others and wouldn’t she rather die and allow her family members and loved ones to go on with their lives?”

Mary Jane Owen, director of Disabled Catholics in Action, referred to the point where the right-to-die movement tried to establish judicial precedence in encouraging the culture of death. 

Vacco v. Quill, a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that the Constitution did not guarantee an individual’s right to die, was a victory for pro-life advocates, but it changed euthanasia supporters’ methodology of death from medical intervention to the withdrawal of medical treatment, she said.

“What the culture of death determined from that is if we can’t kill you with drugs or (lethal injection of) shots, we’ll kill you with dehydration and starvation,” Owen said.

‘Terri Taught Us’

As the Schiavo case played out, several Vatican officials spoke out strongly in favor of keeping her alive.  In comments made several days before Terri’s death, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said her death would represent “a homicide in which it is impossible to idly stand by without becoming accomplices.”

Other reactions ranged from sorrow to frustration to bleak warnings about what the future holds.

In a statement, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, where Terri’s family resides, offered his condolences to the family and reminded people that “life is short” and to cherish others and each day.

The Schindlers have criticized Bishop Lynch, who was traveling in Indonesia at the time of Terri’s death, for not speaking out more forcefully in support of their daughter.  A local source, who wished to remain anonymous, said that in the months leading up to the removal of Terri’s feeding tube, the bishop did not either encourage, nor discourage the clergy to speak out.

The Holy See, however, didn’t remain silent.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who witnessed Pope John Paul II receiving nutrition through a feeding tube at the end of his life, said after Terri’s death was announced that “a life was interrupted. Death was arbitrarily anticipated, because feeding a person can never be considered as drastic therapy.”

Pope John Paul II said in 2004 that providing patients with food and water for nourishment and alleviating suffering — even if it is administered artificially — is considered “morally obligatory.”

“May God have mercy on our society which failed to protect this innocent human life,” said Cardinal William Keeler, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities.

Father Frank Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, who prayed with Schindler family members at Terri’s bedside the night before and the morning of her death, was blunt in his reaction.

“This is not only a death, with all the sadness that brings, but this is a killing, and for that we not only grieve that Terri has passed but we grieve that our nation has allowed such an atrocity as this,” Father Pavone said.

President Bush offered his condolences to the Schindler family and urged a presumption in favor of life when there are serious doubts about someone’s wishes.

“I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others,” President Bush said.

His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also tried to view Terri’s death in a positive light.

“Terri’s death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society,” the governor said. “For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us.”

Other Terris

But for others, the future appears bleak.

Alex Schadenberg, the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said Terri’s death was a clear case of euthanasia.

“Some bio-ethicists have said that Terri was so brain damaged that she was already dead,” said Schadenberg. “They claimed that the feeding tube was artificially keeping a dead person alive. This is a dangerous statement which is based on a eugenic ideology.  … Terri was cognitively disabled but she was not brain dead. To say that her life is not worth living is to say that all people who have a severe cognitive disability are not worth living.”

Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, viewed Terri’s death as a precedent that can be imposed on other disabled people.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who visited the Schindlers the night before Terri’s death, said in a press conference after Terri died that he found it “chilling” the number of doctors who called in to talk shows during Terri’s deathwatch and said it was routine to have a feeding tube removed.

The Church teaches that nutrition and hydration may be cut off only if a person is imminently dying and the benefits of food and water are outweighed by the burdens to the patient that they begin to cause at a certain point in the dying process.

Santorum also spoke out about what he referred to as “judicial tyranny” — a reference to the court system ignoring congressional action to try to save Terri’s life. Not only did Congress pass a law to allow Terri’s case to be heard in federal courts; congressional subpoenas were issued to try to stop the starvation and bring Terri and Michael to a hearing. The subpoenas were ignored.

As for what the future holds, pro-life advocates have joined forces to try to influence future judicial appointments and to work with political leaders on crafting legislation that would articulate the rights of disabled people, said Paul Schenck, a pastoral associate with Priests for Life and the executive director of the National Pro-Life Action Center.

Those rights must not include the right to determine the time or circumstances of one’s own death “because that is a suicide and no matter how offensive or disagreeable that is, the fact is that we, as a society, have always instinctively protected a person from themselves,” Schenck said. “And right now we have a judiciary that seems to be obsessed with the right to die, which now includes the right to kill. … This is a perversion of the whole notion of rights.”

Meanwhile, the Schindler family vowed to fight for “other Terris” and to change the laws so others like her won’t die like she did.

“We ask ourselves a question in these incredibly sad circumstances,” said Bobby Schindler, Terri’s brother, after Terri died. “What would the Lord Jesus ask us to do in a moment like this? In John’s Gospel, Jesus responded to the questions of the rabbis who asked why a man had been born blind. Jesus said, ‘It is so that the works of God might be made manifest through him.’ God’s plan for Terri is unfolding before our eyes.

“Our prayer at this time is our nation will remember the plight of persons with disabilities and commit within our hearts to defend their lives and their dignity for many generations to come.”

        Carlos Briceño writes

from Seminole, Florida.