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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 3 - Michaelmas 2003

Enforcing the "Right to Die"
The Case of Terri Schiavo

by Nancy Valko, RN

By the time this article is published, Terri Schiavo may be dead.

Terri is not a convicted murderer. She is not terminally ill. Instead, she is a 39-year-old severely brain-injured woman whose parents and siblings, the Schindler family, have been waging a long legal battle to prevent Terri's husband and the legal system from ending her life.1

In July, 2003, Terri was granted perhaps her last "stay of execution" by a Florida appeals court before her case is returned to Judge George Greer, a Florida judge who has previously and repeatedly ordered Terri's tube feedings stopped. Although this will give the family's lawyers some time to file an appeal with the Florida Supreme Court, hope is slim because that court has declined to even hear Terri's case in the past.

The final hope to save Terri Schiavo's life may lay with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has recently received thousands of petitions for him to intervene to save Terri's life.2

 

Who is Terri Schiavo and Why Do Some People Believe She Should Die?
In 1990, 26-year-old Terri Schiavo mysteriously collapsed at home and suffered brain damage as a result of oxygen deprivation. A medical malpractice suit ensued and a trust fund was established to pay for Terri's lifetime care. After the case was resolved, Terri's husband, Michael, claimed that he now remembered statements his wife had made in the past about not want-ing to be kept alive in such a condition. (A former girlfriend has since disputed that claim because of statements Michael Schiavo made to her.) He petitioned a court for permission to stop her tube feedings and claimed that Terri was in a so-called "vegetative state", despite videotape evidence of Terri, showing her smiling, responding to her mother and even apparently trying to talk.

Florida law allows food and water to be withheld if a person meets the state's definition of "vegetative state" as "the absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior of any kind" and "an inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment". Experts for the husband claim that Terri's visible responses are mere "reflexes" and disagree with other medical experts who have testified that Terri has at least some basic awareness and could possibly be helped with therapy.

Terri's parents and siblings volunteered to take responsibility for Terri's care, but Michael Schiavo has refused to relinquish guardianship or divorce Terri, despite living with and fathering a child by a girlfriend. He has also refused to allow rehabilitation services and, despite the fact that Terri is not terminally ill, had her transferred to a hospice facility three years ago.

Nevertheless, Judge Greer and the Florida courts have so far dismissed all concerns about the circumstances surrounding this case and maintain that the only issues are Terri's disabled condition and her alleged desire to die. As a Florida probate court said in June, "we understand why a parent who had raised and nurtured a child from conception would hold out hope that some level of cognitive function remained. If Mrs. Schiavo were our own daughter, we could not but hold to such a faith. But in the end, this case is not about the aspirations that loving parents have for their children. It is about Theresa Schiavo's right to make her own decision, independent of her parents and independent of her husband".3

While the Schindler family endures such portrayals of themselves as being in denial over Terri's condition -- and incurs enormous legal bills fighting to save her -- the courts have allowed Michael Schiavo to use the funds for Terri's care to pay legal bills. George Felos, Mr. Schiavo's lawyer who has been involved in several other "right to die" cases, has reportedly received more than $600,000 so far from the fund. His main medical expert was Dr. Ronald Cranford, who has testified in many "right to die" cases and who does not support even spoon-feeding for the so-called "vegetative" and people he terms "minimally conscious".

Although Terri Schiavo's case has received only a smattering of national media coverage, disability, pro-life, and other groups throughout the country have expressed outrage and alarm over this precedent-setting case. Terri's case is being seen as the final dismantling of any legal safeguards to protect the mentally disabled from the deliberate starvation and dehydration that would be unthinkable for a convicted murderer or even an animal. 


The Catholic Connection
As Catholics, Terri's parents Bob and Mary Schindler requested the help of their local bishop, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, to help save their daughter's life.4 Instead, Bishop Lynch issued a statement that "The Catholic Church would prefer to see all parties take the safer path but it must and will refrain from characterizing the actions of anyone in this tragic moment".5

This statement was particularly discouraging since Father Gerard Murphy, a pastor and former hospital chaplain, had already testified for Terri's husband that withdrawing Terri's tube feedings "would be consistent with the teaching of the Catholic church".6

Unfortunately, there is a long history of Catholic priests and ethicists who have given similar testimony in other public "right to die" cases without rebuttal by the local bishop, despite Church documents and a 1998 statement by Pope John Paul II emphasizing that "the omission of nutrition and hydration intended to cause a patient's death must be rejected".7 Instead, these priests and ethicists uniformly mischaracterize people like Terri Schiavo as "gravely ill" and simple feeding tubes as "prolonging death".

Unfortunately, these ethicists have often held prominent positions in Catholic health care and education for years. It has now become harder and harder to find a Catholic health facility that does more than provide mere lip service to principle on this crucial issue. It is telling that when Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis issued a statement quoting Church teaching during the Steven Becker "right to die" case in 2000, many Catholic priests and ethicists from around the country criticized him for taking such an uninformed and "extreme" position in defense of life.8

Therefore, it is welcome news that Catholic groups are now challenging such misrepresentations in the Terri Schiavo case. Women for Faith & Family president Helen Hitchcock sent a letter to Florida Governor Jeb Bush asking him to "review Terri Schiavo's case and to intercede on her behalf", noting that Women for Faith & Family has filed amicus briefs in the similar Cruzan and Busalacchi cases.9 A Catholic media coalition sent a public letter to all the Florida bishops calling for them "to publicly condemn the injustice and moral evil of this deliberate act of euthanasia and to issue a plea for mercy to the Florida courts and to Governor Jeb Bush".10 The Catholic Medical Association issued a statement that "discontinuing nutrition and hydration in this circumstance violates in its intention the distinction between 'causing death' and 'allowing death'" and quotes the 1989 pastoral statement of the Bishops of Florida that states "We can never justify the withdrawal of sustenance on the basis of the quality of life of the patient".11

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability, which includes Cardinal Francis George on its board, has highlighted the differences between Terry Wallis, a man who recently regained full consciousness after 19 years when his family refused to give up, and Terri Schiavo, whose husband is seeking to end her life. In their press release, Mary Jane Owen, executive director of the partnership, states, "those of us who live with assorted disabilities are aware that when any of us is deprived of their essential dignity and worth, each of us face that same discounting by the judgments of the culture of death".12


A Precedent-Setting Case
The importance of saving Terri cannot be overestimated, not only for her right to live but also to apply a brake to the current "right to die" movement that seems bent on terminating people with severe brain injuries or conditions. It is no accident that people like Terri are put into hospices and cases like hers are included in "end of life" education programs for health care professionals and the public. It is no coincidence that withdrawal of treatment decisions have become the justification for the new non-heartbeating organ donation policies.13 And it is the ultimate irony that even families and patients who choose to live can now be overruled by medical futility policies being instituted at hospitals throughout the country.

Terri's family has put up a courageous fight to save their daughter's life and, if they finally lose, a terrible precedent will be set for coercing other families to give up fighting for their loved ones. If evidence of Terri's responsiveness, as well as questions of possible perjury and bias, continue to be ignored by the courts, no one with a disability is ultimately safe from medical or legal discrimination.

Bob Schindler, Terri's father, poignantly observes, "We pay great lip service in this country to disability rights, but as the degree of a person's disability increases, the level of legal protection that person receives decreases".

Notes
1 Schindler family's website, www.terrisfight.org.
2 Petition to Issue a Stay in Florida Court Proceedings Regarding Theresa Schindler-Schiavo, available online at: www.terrisfight.org/Framesets/CNewsFrame.htm.
3 "Court Says Woman Has Right To Die" by Hugo Kugiya, Newsday, June 3, 2003.
4 "US Supreme Court Rules Woman Can Be Starved to Death over Parents' Objections", LifeSite News, 4/26/01. Available online at: www.lifesite.net/ldn/2001/apr/01042602.html.  
5 "Husband Seeks to End Life of Brain-Damaged Wife" by Eve Tushnet, National Catholic Register, May 20-26, 2001.
6 Trial testimony of Father Gerard Murphy, January 24, 2000.
7 "Pope Tells American Bishops: Fight Death", October 2, 1998. Includes full text of ad limina address delivered by Pope John Paul II in Rome to the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii. Available online at www.petersnet.net/browse/553.htm.
8 See "Steven Becker and the Fight for the Soul of Catholic Health Care", Nancy Valko, Voices Advent 2000. Available online at: www.wf-f.org/valkoadvent.html.
9 WFF's July 21 Letter to Governor Jeb Bush concerning Terri Schiavo case. Available online at: www.wf-f.org/Bush-Schiavo.html. See text below.
10 "Catholic Media Group Calls on Florida Bishops To Defend Terri", press release, July 23, 2003. Available online at: www.missionsun.org/faithwatch.htm.
11 Statement of the Catholic Medical Association on the case of Mrs. Terry Schiavo, by Robert J. Saxer, M.D, President of Catholic Medical Association and Steven White, M.D., President of Florida Catholic Medical Association.
12 "National Catholic Partnership on Disability Highlights Differences Between Two Neurologically Disabled Individuals", press release July 10, 2003. Available online under Recent Headlines at: www.terrisfight.org.
13 See "Ethical Implications of Non-Heart-Beating Organ Donation", Nancy Valko, Voices Michaelmas 2002. Available online at: www.wf-f.org/02-3-OrganDonation.html.


Nancy Valko, a registered nurse, is president of Missouri Nurses for Life, a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro-life Nurses and a Voices contributing editor.



Updates on the Terri's Page


Related Statement
Taking a stand against causing death, March 2,2005


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