In the early 1990s, I was a speechwriter for then Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan. Working in the Humphrey Building on Independence Avenue, at the foot of Capitol Hill, afforded me a unique window on the world. I not only researched and wrote about many health issues, including disabilities, I also encountered large numbers of the disabled who frequently rallied outside our building. Their heroic determination in dealing with painful limitations that I could only imagine deeply affected me. Their struggles made all of my problems seem so minor. I was embarrassed to remember how pathetic my own patience was in the face of mere aggravations.
Joe Ford, a Harvard student with cerebral palsy, wrote a piece in the Harvard Crimson about Terri Schiavo. He asserts, “Our country has learned that we cannot judge people on the basis of minority status, but for some reason we have not erased our prejudice against disability.”
Ford, rightly, pointed out that little attention has been paid to the 20 major disability rights groups that opposed removing Terri’s feeding tube. Instead, the religious right has been demonized and caricatured as unreasonable zealots who would interfere with a husband’s right to follow his wife’s wishes. Never mind that the husband forfeited his rights as “husband” by living with another woman for nine years and fathering two children by her. Never mind that the wife’s wishes were not and could not be known. Never mind that the woman had never had legal representation; nor had her mental capacity been established by the newest medical technology.
Sadly, there was also little attention to the details from even the most sophisticated media personnel differentiating “life support systems,” the technically advanced measures used to keep terminally ill people alive, from “feeding tubes,” the simple devices used to feed and hydrate many sick and disabled people who are otherwise quite healthy physically. I daresay that many Americans who indicated on the polls that Terri should be allowed to “die with dignity” don’t understand the message that they are sending to the thousands of healthy disabled people who are fed and hydrated via intubations.
Further, I don’t think most Americans understand that the choice was not merely whether Terri’s parents or her husband-in-name-only determined her fate, but whether, as a nation, we would protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.
The Schaivo case has clearly crossed a line where our national courts have determined that someone who is physically healthy but mentally disabled is better off dead than alive. Ford points out that Terri’s case has revealed the public attitude that the mentally disabled have no rights because they “would not want to live like that.”
Because many of the people who protested the court’s intervention are Christians arguing from pro-life moral principles, the mainstream media is depicting the opposition to the removal of Terri’s feeding tube as solely the agenda of religious fanatics. Such “red herring” demagoguery is unworthy of legitimate journalism, but sadly is typical when journalists are covering true believers.
If I were disabled either physically or mentally I would be very afraid today, because none of the disabled are protected against Terri’s fate. Terri’s death puts them all at risk, and the complicity of the courts reinforces the power of judicial tyranny. Further, it highlights the changing dynamics for the disabled who are currently denied what was taken for granted in the past guaranteed legal representation and protection.
As Eric Cohen pointed out in his article, “How Liberalism Failed Terri Schiavo,” it is not just a question of what Terri would have wanted, but of “what we owe her.” None of us wants to take away the autonomy “of those who no longer possess the capacity to act freely.” Yet, ironically, by not adhering to the legal obligation to “err on the side of life,” the judicial system violated Terri’s right to have representation and protection.
The tragic story of Terri Schiavo will echo through the future pages of U.S. history; may it be like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which did so much to galvanize opposition to slavery. May the court-ordered termination of an innocent life by starvation at the request of a man who had forsaken his marriage vows be remembered as akin to the morally bankrupt Dred Scott decision. Terri’s death, a heinous act ordered by Circuit Court Judge George Greer, reveals what has happened to the moral character of our judiciary!
Her death is a direct result of the moral disintegration and the judicial tyranny that are undermining the strength of this nation and the rule of law. Her death is a call to arms: We must resist further expansion of the power of the black-robed autocrats who continue to strip away Judeo-Christian ethics from our governance. They are replacing it with their own whims and opinions without regard to either the intent of the Constitution or duly enacted legislation.
I pray that Terri’s case will be the wake-up call that brings us back to our senses, back to Biblical Truth — the ultimate standard for life and death decisions . . . and back to God — the Sovereign Judge of the universe before whom Judge Greer will one day stand to give an account, as will we all.
Janice Crouse is Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America.