By GEORGIA BULLETIN STAFF and CNS | Published April 7, 2005
The plight of Terri Schiavo, who died March 31 nearly two weeks after her feeding tube was disconnected, raised critical questions for society, according to Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Schiavo, 41, had been in what doctors defined as a persistent vegetative state since 1990, when her brain was deprived of oxygen after her heart stopped. Doctors appointed by the courts had said she had no real consciousness or chance of recovery.
However, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, fought with her husband, Michael Schiavo, for seven years over the right to make medical decisions for her.
They tried unsuccessfully to persuade state and federal courts at all levels that they should have the right to care for her, and, later, that her feeding tube should be reinserted. Their last appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected without comment hours before she died at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla.
It was under a court order that her feeding tube was removed March 18, based on Michael Schiavo’s testimony that his wife had told him she would not want to be kept alive artificially.
In a statement issued shortly after she died, Cardinal Keeler said Schiavo’s situation raised the question of how to care for the most helpless patients who cannot speak for themselves.
He cited the comment of Pope John Paul II last year at a conference on end-of-life medical ethics that “the administration of food and water, even when provided by artificial means,” should be considered morally obligatory, as long as it provides nourishment and relieves suffering for the patient.
Cardinal Keeler quoted poet John Donne, saying “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
“We are all diminished by this woman’s death, a death that speaks to the moral confusion we face today,” said Cardinal Keeler. “Ours is a culture in which human life is increasingly devalued and violated, especially where that life is most weak and fragile.”
He said he prayed that the “human tragedy” of Schiavo’s situation “will lead our nation to a greater commitment to protect helpless patients and all the weakest among us.”
In a statement issued March 31, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory responded in kind to the news of Schiavo’s death: “One of the most fundamental and inherent human rights is the right to life, a right that must be protected above all others. Because it is an inherent right, it is not granted by and does not belong to society; or the courts, or the legislature.”
“To deny a handicapped individual, who is unable to speak for herself, food and water, the very necessities of life, and allow her to starve to death,” said the archbishop, “shows the moral confusion and tragedy of the culture of death…”
Noting that the removal of the feeding tube “resulted in Terri’s death,” Archbishop Gregory said that this “has ramifications for all Americans, especially those who are the most vulnerable among us, and puts our entire society further along the slippery slope of relativism.”
He continued, “Ms. Schiavo’s case is not simply an issue of one person’s life or death. It is symptomatic that a broader culture of death, rather than culture of life, has crept into our society, evidenced by the evil of abortion and so-called ‘right to die’ legislation.”
Archbishop Gregory reiterated that followers of Christ believe in a “God who loves us…who forms the basis for all moral values.”
“Once that absolute is lost,” he said, “all values become relative…at the mercy of the individual” or society.
The archbishop stated a hope that her death was not in vain “if it serves to re-awaken Americans to this basic truth.”
The director of the pro-life office for the Atlanta Archdiocese, Mary Boyert, expressed condolences for those “across the country who mourn the tragic death of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. We pray for her soul, and for peace and strength to all those who loved her. We also pray for healing for the families. These past years have been hard on all involved.”
She highlighted the “tragedy that Terri was denied the most basic of human needs, that of nutrition and hydration.”
Boyert said, “It is hard to understand why and how this was allowed to happen. She was not in the process of dying, she was merely handicapped.”
“Each and every human being is a precious gift from God, deserving of respect and dignity,” said Boyert. “We pray that the death of Terri Schiavo will lead us to a renewal of our efforts to build a culture of life in our society.”
Ed McCoy, the director of the Ministry With Persons With Disabilities for the archdiocese, echoed Boyert’s concerns. He said, “It was a murder…not at all a quick and easy death.” An outspoken advocate for disabled persons, McCoy said, “Disabled people everywhere are saying, ‘That could be me.’”
He also said that those with the disabilities of old age are worried about euthanasia.
“As Catholics, it’s immoral to remove feeding tubes,” said McCoy. “There’s an extraordinary difference between extraordinary vs. ordinary.”
Jim Kelly, a former estate-planning attorney and a Catholic, had some trenchant remarks about the Schiavo case and the legal system in Florida.
In his profession, he has prepared numerous living wills for his clients.
He said, “It was amazing to see the great weight that married couples assigned to this task. In most cases, they wrestled with the options contained in their living wills more than they did their estate plans involving significant assets.”
He noted that the Florida law was a hindrance in Schiavo’s case. “It boggles my mind that Florida law would even allow for oral statements to have any bearing regarding care in such cases. It is further incredible that courts would require anything short of clear and convincing evidence that someone in Terri Schiavo’s condition desired not to be provided fluids or nourishment.”
“If, based solely on hearsay evidence regarding some off-hand remarks made by a person in their 20s about ‘not wanting to be kept alive that way,’ the law permits a person to be starved or denied fluids to the point of death,” Kelly said, “then, as Dickens wrote, ‘If the law supposes that, the law is an ass, an idiot.’”
Mary Anne Castranio and Priscilla Greear contributed to this story.