The decision about removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube has ramifications for all Americans. It is not just a matter of one person’s life or death. It is a matter of society’s responsibility for the vulnerable among us. Will we allow the death of a helpless person because someone who will benefit from that death makes claims about the person’s preference? Will we allow that person to speak for a person unable to speak for herself? Will we allow a healthy handicapped person to be denied life-sustaining sustenance? Will we allow someone with questionable motives who stands to benefit financially from his decision to pronounce a death sentence?
Terri Schiavo was a beautiful, vivacious young woman 15 years ago when her heart stopped for five minutes. She came out of that crisis with physical and mental limitations. Pictures of Terri before her crisis are seldom seen, though she rivals Laci Peterson in beauty, appeal and charm.
Three years after the incident causing her handicap (in 1993), her husband won a $1.6 million malpractice case that, supposedly, would ensure rehabilitation therapy and medical care for the rest of her life. Her husband stopped the physical therapy, as well as any dental and some medical care, shortly after the award-even though experts believe that Terri would respond and that her quality of life could improve with therapy.
After being involved with multiple women, Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, began living with another woman in 1996 and has two children with her. He has moved on with his life, claiming that Terri is in a “persistent vegetative state.” He has brought in medical witnesses who back up his claim, even though other experts attest to Terri’s responsiveness. Numerous visitors and caregivers describe Terri’s ability to perceive and understand as well as her appropriate emotional responses to situations. A neurologist, Dr. William Hammesfahr, examined Terri for 12 hours and declared that she was not in a persistent vegetative state because she responded appropriately to external stimuli. (1)
Terri is not in a coma; she is responsive to her parents and siblings who love her, are willing to pay for her care and who visit her regularly. She does not have a “terminal” condition and her feeding tube is not considered “life support”; it is just necessary medical equipment for a person who, at this time, cannot swallow.
Removing Terri’s feeding tube means forcing her death. It is not a matter of removing artificial life support systems or stopping extraordinary, heroic efforts to prolong life. Terri is a healthy, handicapped person whose inability to swallow makes a feeding tube necessary. In that sense, she is like thousands of persons with disabilities.
After a three-hour debate in the United States House of Representatives, members voted 203-58 for Terri’s life (most of those voting to allow her death were Democrats, indicating a Red State-Blue State divide that splits Americans along cultural issues).
What is happening to Terri Schiavo threatens every human being who potentially could face an injury that would compromise normal functioning.
Her estranged husband who years ago voluntarily surrendered his responsibility to care for Terri and who, by his actions, has forfeited the right to make decisions regarding her care has used his legal connection to Terri to force removal of her feeding tube, thereby forcing the United States onto uncharted pathways regarding what is ethical in our treatment of disabled individuals. Worse, Michael Schiavo is propelling America into a new era in our “culture of death” an era of callousness toward vulnerable, dependent people who cannot defend themselves.
Those who warned that sanctioning abortion was just the first step on the descent into euthanasia seem quite prescient given all the facts about Terri Schiavo’s case.
(1) Pamela P. Wong, CWA Fact Sheet: The Truth About Terri, www.cwfa.org, March 7, 2005.
Janice Shaw Crouse is Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for Concerned Women for America. She writes regularly on issues of importance to women in America.