Life in the Balance: Fight for Terri In Critical Stage

TAMPA, Fla. — The face of the euthanasia debate in America today is a 41-year-old Roman Catholic woman named Terri Schindler-Schiavo.

The tug-of-war between her estranged husband and her family became more intense during the last week of February, as a judge allowed the removal of her feeding tube March 18 and a state agency signaled that it wanted to investigate evidence of abuse that could have caused the woman’s brain damage.

The struggle continues to reverberate throughout the pro-life, disabled and pro-euthanasia communities. One prominent bioethicist said that even if Schiavo is not in a persistent vegetative state, as her husband, Michael Schiavo, maintains, Schiavo still has the right to order her starvation.

“I do really consider this the ‘Roe v. Wade for the vulnerable.’ We are going to be throwing away more and more people if the judge persists in seeing Terri Schiavo killed,” said Mary Jane Owen, executive director of Disabled Catholics in Action in Washington, D.C.

Terri Schiavo is not dying, but she suffered severe brain damage in 1990 after her heart stopped beating and cut off oxygen to her brain. Although she breathes on her own, she receives nutrition through a gastric abdominal tube.

Courts have upheld the “persistent vegetative state” diagnosis, but her family disputes that, citing other medical experts. Since 2000, Michael Schiavo has tried to get her feeding tube removed, saying she once told him she would not want to exist like this.

Terri Schiavo’s parents and siblings are fighting to stop her death, and have mobilized people across the nation.

Fourteen disability rights groups have filed friend-of-the-court briefs to keep her alive, and a coalition of pro-life groups, including Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, traveled to Florida to lobby government officials. The American Civil Liberties Union has backed Michael Schiavo.

On Feb. 24, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, launched an appeal to save Terri Schiavo.

“If Mr. Schiavo succeeds legally in causing the death of his wife, this not only would be tragic in itself, but would be a grave step toward the legal approval of euthanasia in the United States,” the cardinal said on Vatican Radio.

“I would like to remind everyone in this connection, about all that the Holy Father has said in past days to the Pontifical Academy for Life, confirming that the quality of life is not interpreted as economic success, beauty and physical pleasure, but consists in the supreme dignity of the creature made in the image and likeness of God.

“No one can be the arbiter of life except God himself,” Cardinal Martino said.

But on Feb. 25, Florida Circuit Judge George Greer allowed Schiavo to order the tube removed March 18 and said he would not allow any more stays.

On Feb. 23, the Florida Department of Children and Families requested that the court issue a 60-day stay on removing the feeding tube while it investigates allegations of abuse against Schiavo, according to an Associated Press report.

Terri Schiavo’s family believes the brain damage, officially said to have been caused by an eating disorder, may have been due to domestic violence. Michael Schiavo, who currently lives with another woman with whom he has two children, won a $1-million malpractice settlement. He stopped all physical therapy and rehabilitation after winning the damage award.

To bolster the family’s abuse claims, X-rays taken in 1991 became public in 2002 and showed multiple fractures and a recent head injury that could have caused her brain damage, according to an analysis by former chief medical examiner of New York, Dr. Michael Baden. Baden made his claims in 2003 on the Fox television show On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.

‘Ugly Iceberg’

“I think after an enormous amount of battling, we are finally entering the endgame,” said University of Pennsylvania bio-ethicist and MSNBC commentator Arthur Caplan, who has long argued for the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. “My view is the husband should have decision-making authority. It is possible to disqualify him in the court, but they haven’t succeeded.

“She doesn’t have to be in a permanent vegetative state for him to withdraw treatment,” Caplan said. “I don’t think his reasons would shift from being a permanent vegetative state to she’s in a minimally conscious state. As far as I understand her husband, he believes she would not want to be in that state.”

“These people, they just want her dead,” said Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, an 81-year-old retired Army chaplain, who has visited Terri Schiavo with her parents for the past four years.

Schiavo responds to her parents and to others, and she even sits up, Malanowski said. “When I talked to her, her head turned to me. When her mother talked to her, she turned to her side of the bed. She smiles, she laughs, she cries.”

In October 2003, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida legislature passed a law requiring the re-insertion of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube after six days of dehydration and starvation. However, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned the law, and Jan. 24 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. The case thus returned to Greer, who authorized two previous gastric tube removals.

Terri Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, are asking that Michael Schiavo be declared an unfit guardian, and contend that Pope John Paul II’s strong statements on the sanctity of life would have influenced their daughter, a practicing Catholic, to stay alive.

Pope John Paul II said it is “morally obligatory” to continue artificial feeding and hydration of people even in persistent vegetative states. Withdrawal of food and water, even if delivered via artificial means, is “euthanasia by omission,” the pontiff said in March 2004.

That flies in the face of accepted practice in many hospitals, according to Caplan and disability activists.

“What most people don’t realize is that the Terri Schiavo case is just the [tip] of a very ugly iceberg. There are thousands of people whose lives are being ended this way every year in this country,” said Stephen Drake, policy analyst with Not Dead Yet, an organization of disabled people who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Call for Moratorium

Not Dead Yet on Feb. 14 called for a moratorium on the withholding of food and water from people in persistent vegetative states and minimally conscious states until their cognition can be tested. The organization cited a study published in the February edition of the journal Neurology that showed surprisingly high levels of brain activity in people diagnosed as “minimally conscious” using magnetic resonance imaging.

 Minimally conscious patients show some awareness of their environment and themselves while vegetative patients may sleep and wake but do not actually react to their environment, according to an article published on the Cornell University medical school website.

Drake said as many as 30% of patients are misdiagnosed as vegetative.

Schiavo’s parents are asking the court for more cognitive tests, particularly brain scans in light of those discoveries. The study’s author, Dr. Joy Hirsch, director of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center at Columbia University Medical School said: “The most consequential thing about this is that we have opened a door and we have found an objective voice for these patients, which tells us they have some cognitive ability in a way they cannot tell us themselves. The patients are more human than we imagined in the past, and it is unconscionable not to aggressively pursue research efforts to evaluate them and develop therapeutic techniques.”

A petition with 100,000 online signatures asking for intervention to save Terri Schiavo was to be presented Feb. 25 to Gov. Bush. At least four other petitions relating to her were posted in cyberspace.

Bush, who said his office has received thousands of emails and phone calls urging him to take action, is considering calling a special legislative session.

“People with deep faith and big hearts are concerned, as I am about the circumstance that Ms. Schiavo is in,” the Florida governor said. “I want them to know I will do what I can, but there are limits to what any particular person — irrespective of the title they currently hold — can do.”

Valerie Schmalz writes

from San Francisco.

Zenit news service

contributed to this report.

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