Every year, I write to honor my sister, Terri Schiavo, on March 31st, the anniversary of her death. For those who do not remember, Terri, at the age of 26, experienced a still inexplicable collapse resulting in a severe brain injury. Terri’s case and condition continue to be inaccurately reported. For example, reports falsely suggesting Terri variously had a terminal condition, needed “machines,” was in a coma, or even was outright “brain dead” are all incorrect.
Sadly, after a few years of caring for Terri, Michael Schiavo, who was Terri’s husband and guardian, lost interest, and eventually petitioned the courts for permission to deliberately starve and dehydrate her to death by having her feeding tube removed. Due to her brain injury, she was unable to swallow using conventional utensils, and like many Americans required nutrition and hydration by feeding tube in order to live.
Another false description of Terri was that this sort of food and water constituted “life support,” when in fact she was lively and stable, and simply required food and water in the same way that any of us do. Nonetheless, by the order of Judge George W. Greer, Terri was deprived of water and food for more than 13 days. She died on March 31, 2005 of intentionally caused extreme dehydration.
In response to Terri’s death, my family established the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network to advocate for medically vulnerable persons, accessing families to resources they need to fight in their time of crisis. Too often, medically vulnerable persons and their families and advocates are confronted with having their basic care denied, as a rising “quality- of-life” mentality continues to influence the sort care they receive.
Indeed, if we look just this past year, you will see the progress of those who are advancing a “death-with-dignity” worldview, and that it ought to be our right to choose death. This view mistakes “dignity” for describing essentially “How independent I am”, rather than recognizing the principle that dignity is fundamental, innate, and not conditional based on our changing life circumstances. In addition to this, it is now legal in every U.S. state to deny a patient food and water, as in Terri’s situation, as the erosion of a patient’s right to receive proper care progresses.
In February, Oregon legislators passed a bill that made it legal for surrogates to decide to stop feeding Alzheimer’s patients (even if they have the ability to swallow food) if there is nothing expressed by the patient to indicate otherwise.
Canada recently legalized euthanasia and is already looking for ways to expand their “Medical Aid in Dying” umbrella to make death more attainable for larger numbers of people—even those who are unable to express their desire to die.
If we look to the Netherlands, it has been legal for clinicians to euthanize the terminally ill, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and the mentally ill who request death. Yet, although it is illegal to kill patients who do not ask to be killed, it has been done anyway. Certain studies suggest that hundreds of patients may be involuntarily euthanized annually. And incredibly, albeit unsurprisingly, the Dutch are now pushing to eliminate age restrictions entirely, underscoring that this was never really about “assisting” terminally ill persons already near death, but in fact has been about enabling on-demand death by suicide for any person, at any age, regardless of condition or situation. That’s the logical conclusion once a society accepts that “dignity” can sometimes only be preserved through self-annihilation.
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If one simply reads mainstream bioethics scholars over the past half century or so, their faulty perspective on “what it means to be a person” is laid out plainly enough. New standards like self-awareness, an ability to communicate in specific ways, philosophical conjectures surrounding when a human being becomes a “person”, and other rationales have diminished our sense of the exceptional value of human life. If you meet their new standards, then you are still a person. Otherwise, you’ve been relegated to a “sub-person” class where you lose the rights of personhood, essentially meaning you lose your right to life if others choose to end it.
But this is radical ideology. Most reasonable people would agree that a person who has lost his/her ability to interact, or have awareness, do not consequently lose their human dignity. There is nothing more false than the notion that a person’s dignity comes from their level of mental cognition, or their lack of like a person with Downs, or dementia, even autism.
In Wesley J. Smith’s “Culture of Death” he identifies the toxic notion of Joseph Fletcher, the secular humanist who asserted that the ability to communicate is essential to being human. Yet if one looks at certain conditions of autism, as one example, one can easily argue that certain persons would fail to meet Fletcher’s criteria for qualifying as “being human”. It is only a matter of time before people with autism, for example, will widely be considered as “human non-persons,” and as a consequence, subjected to the same prejudices as all of the other historical undesirables in human history. As incredible as medical science is at present in its various achievements, advancements, and breakthroughs, Fletcher-style thinking on dignity and medical care, and the euthanasia and suicide approaches that are bound up with such thinking, are neither ultimately scientific in nature nor are they new. They’re straight from some of the oldest pages in the book of the human story, involving prejudice, marginalization, oppression, violence and the encouragement of self-harm, and indifference to our neighbor.
For so many, these progressive steps backward are manifestly irrational. But Fletcher’s ideas on personhood dominate in elite quarters today, and influence mainstream thinking on euthanasia and assisted suicide in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, ways. It was only in January that an interview with a college student surfaced wherein he defended the killing of small children as old as two-years old if the child lacked the ability to communicate. In attempting to rationalize his bigotry, he compared the child to a nearby tree, asserting that the child is of no greater worth than the tree, since neither are persons.
We’re cultivating new generations hostile to the human rights that have been so historically hard fought and won. The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, along with its allies, is proud to serve all those marginalized medically vulnerable patients and families. We hope you’ll join us in supporting our National Crisis Lifeline and awareness efforts.