March 31, 2010
Its been five years since Terri Schiavo was starved and dehydrated to death by court order in America. Some of us will never forget that terrible two-week period. This weeks panel at Family Research Council movingly re-told the storyso familiar to pro-lifers, so distorted and suppressed for millions of our fellow citizens.
Terri was a medically-dependent young woman who had suffered severe brain damage in the early 90s. She might have recovered the facility of speech. She might have been able to use computers to indicate her thoughts and wisheshad she received the proper rehabilitation in time. But she didnt. Civil Rights advocate Bob Destro, a law professor at Catholic University, said the real story of Terri Schiavo was Americas inability to come to gripseven todaywith disability. Our fears, prejudices, and lack of knowledge strongly influence the medical, legal, and, yes, political judgments we make.
Terris fearless attorney, David Gibbs, has written the story of that lonely fight to save an unoffending womans life. Fighting for Dear Life is his testament to that struggle. We still need to understand more about disability, Gibbs said, because these cases are not going away. Today, in Afghanistan and Iraq, many more young Americans are suffering traumatic brain injury due to IEDs. In previous wars, such wounded warriors might not have made it off the battlefield.
Gibbs laid out six principles we should have learned to uphold:
- Food and water, even if administered by intra-venous tube feedingare never extraordinary care.
- No court should allow someone to die without something in writing on that persons wishes.
- We need greater skill and safeguards in testing before a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state (PVS) is made.
- A spouse who enters into other relationships should be disqualified from making life-ending decisions for his/her legal spouse.
- Federal courts get to review all death sentences for convicted killers; no less should be granted to medically fragile persons.
- Immediate family members should have standing in court to challenge hospitals or their ethics committees when a futile care judgment has been rendered.
FRCs Cathy Ruse, our senior legal analyst, pointed out that Terris long and drawn out death was, in the words of Nat Hentoff, the longest public execution in U.S. history. Terri was not dying. She had no disease. Her life was simply inconvenient to her husband, who had, as they say, moved on. (He had also moved in. See point No. 4 above.) And, most appropriately in this Holy Week, Cathy pointed to those words of Jesus on the Cross: I thirst.
Terris brother, Bobby Schindler, spoke of the terrible toll on the Schindler family of their daughters cruel death. Bobby is Terris brother. He said their fathers death was surely hastened by the trauma of not being able to protect his daughter in her agonizing death. Agonizing it was, too. The family was not allowed even to give her cracked ice.
Nor Holy Communion.
David Gibbs brought hopeful messages of heroes of that dark period. He praised President George W. Bush for rushing back to Washington to sign legislation that permitted the Terri Schiavo case to be heard in federal court. Gov. J.E.B. Bush also labored on the side of the angels in this case. David Gibbs gave kudos to the Congress of 2005 that passed emergency legislation to try to save Terris civil rights.
There was one U.S. Senator at the time who agreed that Terris case might at least be heard in federal court. That senator, a former constitutional law professor, acted in accord with ninety and nine others in that body. But he later said he wished he had not concurred in the Unanimous Consent decree. He said it was the one thing he regretted in his Senate career. That senator is now the President of the United States.
Terris case is not forgotten. Each year on March 31st, there is a memorial Mass at Ave Maria University, in Florida. Fr. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, was present as Terri was dying. He will celebrate the Mass.
Terri will also be remembered in my family. At that time, our daughter was dating a young man at Calvin College. She related to me his reaction to Terris plight:
I thought a husband was supposed to lay down his life for his wife. When that same young man, six months later, asked for our daughters hand in marriage, I had no hesitation in saying yes. Would you?