Terri Schiavo’s Death: Not About Who Decides, But What We Decide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 18, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Terri Schiavo’s Death: Not About Who Decides, But What We Decide Email this article
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by Laura Echiavarria
April 18, 2006

LifeNews.com Note: Laura Echiavarria is the former director of media relations for the National Right to Life Committee.

TERRI SCHINDLER SCHIAVO’s death occurred on the anniversary of a 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court decision authorizing the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan to remove her from a respirator so she could "die with dignity"–although she lived for nearly 10 more years. Her father, when asked if he wanted Karen’s feeding tube removed, replied, "Oh, no, that’s her nourishment."

How far we’ve come. Nearly thirty years later, a woman, whose severity of brain injury reminded us eerily of Karen Ann Quinlan, was declared to be in a "persistent vegetative state." But unlike Ms. Quinlan, Terri Schiavo was not on a respirator. There was nothing "artificial" keeping her alive.

We watched video of her tracking a balloon and her face lighting up at the presence of her mother and we were told not to believe what we saw. We were told that much of the tape contained large chunks of time where Terri responded to nothing and no one.

And yet we questioned and wondered, we discussed it with family and friends. The news media camped outside the hospice showed us her parents and siblings joyful with hope and then, in the final days, filled with despair and grief.

The primary question of the case wasn’t who had the right to make the decision to deny Terri food and water, but whether the decision was right at all.

We are all a car accident away from being disabled. Will you or I one day face a fate similar to Terri’s? Like Terri, is there a point when we are not human enough or alive enough to be allowed to live?

What line do we draw to separate the act of a family member denying food and water to a disabled person and a family member denying food and water to a nondisabled person–which would be neglect or even murder? Is it the motive for the death, the sincerity of the family members who want the person to die?

The line we draw now is based on the disability–nothing else. We fear our own vulnerability and helplessness and we are determined that if something horrendous should befall us, such as serious brain injury, we would not want to live in a hospital bed or a wheelchair. At least we think we wouldn’t want to live that way, but who really knows?

Would you want to go without nourishment as family and hospital personnel hovered around your bed to watch as you became weaker, as Terri was forced to do? How aware would you be? Would you understand that the narcotics given to you were to keep you calm as your stomach ate away at itself in an effort to provide you with some kind of food?

Would you understand that your cracked, bleeding lips and swollen tongue were the result of going without water? Would you lie in bed–listening–as glassfuls of water disappeared down the drain while a nurse washed her hands at the sink in your room?

And if you were not the victim, would you be willing to play God and make the decision to inflict that on someone else?

A year later, Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband who fought for her death, has started a political action committee in Terri’s name. He’s thinking of running for office and has vowed to work against the re-election of politicians who fought to keep Terri alive.

Terri’s parents and siblings, however, have taken the organization they founded to save Terri’s life and are using it to protect the lives of others with brain-injury disabilities. Their goal is to defend vulnerable, disabled Americans from euthanasia and rationed health care and to one day establish centers to provide care for brain-injured individuals and support for their families. They are working to establish a network of professionals who can provide assistance, advice and care to brain-injury victims.

Terri’s life no longer hangs in the balance. But as John Donne, the English author and poet, wrote:

"No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

Terri was a human being, not a vegetable. She was a daughter, a sister, and a wife. Her death, as Donne wrote, diminished us all. But it was not just her death, but the means and the why that make us smaller and weaker. Can we, in a civilized society, watch idly as vulnerable individuals like Terri are destined to die because they are severely disabled?

I would hope that we would heed history and not travel this road, for if we do, we will be moving toward the destruction of all that we hold dear– our civilization, our country, and our own souls.

Related web sites:
Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation – https://www.terrisfight.org