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Terri Schiavo Case Reveals How We Treated Disabled Americans

by Steven Ertelt | WASHINGTON, DC | LIFENEWS.COM | 3/24/05 9:00 AM

Bioethics

Terri Schiavo Case Reveals How We Treated Disabled Americans Email this article
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by Cathy Cleaver Ruse
March 24, 2005

LifeNews.com Note: Cathy Cleaver Ruse, Esq., is the Director of Planning and Information for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. The following editorial originally appeared in Newsday.

TERRI SCHIAVO is at the heart of a human tragedy being played out in our nation, and watched by the world.

Her husband wants to remove her feeding tube, saying this is her wish, while her parents and siblings vigorously disagree that she would have wanted to die. Since last Friday, Schiavo has faced each new day without food or water, by order of a Florida State judge.

"Complex" seems to be the latest watchword in her case. But some things are simple and clear. Terri Schiavo is a woman living with severe disabilities. She is not comatose or "brain dead." She is not terminally ill or dying: Her heart beats on its own and her lungs work without assistance. The thing with Schiavo is that she cannot feed herself without assistance — but then again, neither could Christopher Reeve.

A terribly misleading ABC News Poll, repeated in news reports ad nauseam, says that 63 percent of Americans want Schiavo’s feeding tube removed. The poll says she’s "on life support," which is not true, and that she has "no consciousness," which her family and dozens of doctors dispute in sworn affidavits. The poll also says the family disagreement is whether she would have wanted to "be kept alive." But Schiavo is not dying — or wasn’t, while she was being fed. So the question isn’t whether she should be "kept alive" or "allowed to die," but whether to stop feeding her, in which case she will die. By most accounts, death by starvation and dehydration is a painful, even gruesome death. That’s why we don’t starve convicted criminals to death, or animals either.

Michael Schiavo says she would have wanted to die this way, but what is the proof? Only his claim that Terri told him once that she would not want to live on anything artificial, a claim his family members support.

Years before, in the medical malpractice suit he filed after she became disabled, he claimed that she would have a long life and would need expensive rehabilitative care, and that he would provide this care as long as he lived.

Many are asking why it took six years for him to remember that dying was actually his wife’s wish. Others ask whether a disaffected husband with dubious motives should be granted absolute control over his wife’s fate. It’s a good question, one that was not explored in the original trial, but could be explored in a new trial — if Schiavo does not die first.

And that is why Congress acted.

Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed a bill giving Schiavo’s parents the right to be heard in federal court on the question of whether their daughter’s legal rights have been violated. The Constitution guarantees all persons the right to equal protection and due process of law, Congress argued; without access to a federal appeal, which death-row inmates have every day, Terri Schiavo was being denied both.

All this effort may be tragically moot. On Tuesday a federal district judge denied the petition to reinsert Terri’s feeding tube while a new trial could proceed, and yesterday the federal appeals court agreed. The final recourse for Schiavo’s parents will be to the Supreme Court.

Schiavo cannot speak on her own behalf. She is totally defenseless and dependent on others, but she retains every ounce of her human dignity and deserves respect and care. Her plight dramatizes one of the most critical questions we face: To be a truly human society, how should we care for those who cannot care for themselves? Ultimately what happens to Terri Schiavo will say more about us than it does about her.

A year ago Pope John Paul II answered this question by reaffirming that "the administration of food and water, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act." He said such feeding should be considered "morally obligatory" as long as it provides nourishment and alleviation of suffering.

In other words, as long as food and water provide nourishment and comfort, we should see them as part of what we owe to all people who are helpless and in our care.

Terri Schiavo’s parents see it this way, and are begging for the chance to take care of their daughter. Congress and the president were right to do what they could to give them that chance.