16 Years After They Starved My Sister to Death, We Must Never Forget Terri Schiavo

Opinion   |   Bobby Schindler   |   Mar 31, 2021   |   10:42AM   |   Washington, DC

Each year on March 31, I remember my sister, Terri Schiavo, who died an inhumane death when her feeding tube was removed. Terri was slowly starved to death over a two-week period. This was a brutal death no family – particularly parents – should ever have to witness. As the world watched, Rush Limbaugh said the moment Terri died 16 years ago was “the day our country hit rock bottom.”

Terri was cognitively disabled and had difficulty swallowing so she needed a feeding tube to administer her food and water. Terri was not sustained by “life support,” nor was she sick or dying. Nonetheless, she received a death sentence ordered by Circuit Court Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, at the request of her estranged husband.

In response to Terri’s death, my family established the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network to raise awareness concerning anti-life bias, to educate the public about care potentialities for patients with brain injuries, and most importantly, to aid families in situations similar to what we experienced – loved ones who are in danger of having their basic care denied or withdrawn.

I have been involved in this line of work for two decades and have watched as the protections for the medically vulnerable, particularly the elderly and those with cognitive disabilities, become undermined as the therapeutic care once provided to these persons is under assault. Tragically, there is no shortage of evidence that denial of care is happening almost daily. I have personally witnessed hundreds of such examples.

A recent, well-publicized example of callous treatment of the medically vulnerable is the growing scandal involving the Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York. His order to place COVID-19 infected hospital patients back into their nursing homes contaminated and killed other residents who we know are most at risk of dying from the virus. Cuomo also ordered the return of COVID-19 patients to group homes of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a result of Cuomo’s edict, many of the patients in both nursing and group homes died. In sum, Cuomo and his officials used their power against the powerless and this led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Understandably, when the scandal was exposed and the public learned what the Cuomo did, and subsequently attempted to cover-up, they were horrified. It made no sense that Cuomo would give such orders, particularly when former President Donald Trump commissioned the Navy ship USNS Comfort to act as a temporary hospital to safely accommodate the increase in COVID-19 cases in New York hospitals.

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But why should any of us be surprised by Cuomo’s actions? Historically, our nation has justified the killing of those who were considered “inferior,” and this travesty continues today – a modern-day, government-sanctioned eugenics program.

Prior to my sister’s predicament, I did not know the extent of the lethal prejudice that exists towards persons who are dependent on our care. In the past 16 years, I have come to learn the dark history of deadly discrimination of the disabled and elderly.

In fact, the United States experimented with its own eugenics movement about 20 years prior to Germany’s T4 eugenics movement, in which more than 200,000 German citizens were killed because of their mental and physical disabilities.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas documented some of this dark history in his concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc. Incredibly, Thomas describes how eugenics became part of the academic curriculum being taught in upwards of 400 American universities and colleges.

Consider the legalization of abortion in 1973 and recent research revealing that 94 percent of Belgian doctors support the killing of newborn babies after birth if they are diagnosed with a disability. Eugenics has become so commonplace that close to 70 percent of mothers whose children are given a prenatal disability diagnosis, such as Down Syndrome, abort to avoid the possibility of being “burdened” with caring for a disabled child. The eugenics movement is growing quickly as states significantly loosen limits on late-term abortions and infanticide.

It was not long ago that even the thought of deliberately starving and dehydrating brain injured people to death by the denial of food and water would be unconscionable and considered a criminal act. However, this standard was tested in the 1980s when bioethicist Daniel Callahan brazenly went on record stating, “The denial of nutrition may become the only effective way to make certain that a large number of biologically tenacious patients actually die.”

Callahan saw feeding tubes as a hindrance to hastening the death of the medically dependent who were living “too long.” Just a few years later feeding tubes were reclassified from basic care to “medical treatment,” thus paving the way for countless brain injured persons to have their feeding tubes denied or withdrawn, as in the case of my sister Terri.

Safeguards for the vulnerable continue to decline as we advance towards a eugenic worldview. State legislatures amending healthcare policies and cutting healthcare funding, influence from bioethicists, academia, and the courts all play a critical role in eroding protections for the medically vulnerable. Consequently, the erosion of patients’ rights – and those advocating for them – are leading to basic care being denied or withheld, resulting in premature deaths.

It is difficult to ignore the consequences of a public anesthetized to the dignity God has given to all of us. In fact, the term “dignity,” the special value that exists in all of us, has come under assault. Dignity has been hijacked by a death movement and has morphed into killing people in a horrific and undignified way if they “live too long” for our convenience.

Terri’s death and the wrongful deaths of innumerable others reveal the urgent need to protect ourselves and our loved ones. A good first step is appointing a healthcare agent, a person to make healthcare decisions for you if you are ever unable to make such decisions for yourself, to make certain your medical wishes are being followed.

Likewise, should you find yourself in the position of having to protect your loved ones, arm yourself with knowledge so you can advocate for them. A recently published report from JAMA Neurology reports research found that of patients who experience a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and lose consciousness —nearly half regain functional independence. Robert G. Kowalski, MD, MS, Department of Neurology, University of Colorado School of Medicine, remarked about the significance of this study and urged “caution” when deciding to “withdraw or hold care” to those with serious brain injuries.

Similarly, a new national study published by the University of Kentucky on hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO) shows that this treatment is exhibiting significant promise for the brain injured. This is important for many reasons, but primarily because there are no current FDA-approved treatments for TBI. If HBO can be FDA approved, it could afford a much-needed therapy for brain injury that is currently unavailable.

Another great stride in serving the brain injured is the promise of neuroplasticity, which is the capability of the brain’s neuron pathways to make new connections, resulting in the brain’s ability to recover if given time.

Because of the growing prevalence of the eugenics movement combined with recent developments for treatment, the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network works to inform the public of the current deadly reality for people with brain injuries and our duty to protect our family members.

Recently, with the help of individuals and leaders from other like-minded organizations, we drafted House Bill 314 (HB 314), a resolution that was introduced in the Michigan House and passed unanimously. Although it is not a comprehensive law, HB 314 gives courts a glimpse into the legislative intent of current law and the intent behind the public policy of end-of-life due process.

Pushing similar resolutions, changing health care statutes, and appointing a health care agent to protect loved ones are a few examples of our work and are ways to get involved in this area.

Let us use the anniversary of Terri’s death to remind us that our medically vulnerable are depending on us to protect them against those who place more value on money and convenience than they do on the value of life.