In 2010, the hugely popular adult animated sitcom Family Guy, which had been created by Seth MacFarlane in 1999, featured an episode called Terri Schiavo: The Musical. The intention of the eponymous musical was to mock my sister, Terri.
The episode opened with a mellifluous skit performed by pre-school students to an audience of friends and family. I won’t go into detail because it is vulgar, but Terri’s medical condition was grossly misrepresented with the students singing that she had “mashed potato brains,” and repeatedly referring to her as a “vegetable.”
This was not the first time the “V” word (and other nasty portrayals) had been used to belittle my sister—a woman who had a brain injury, and who was unable to defend herself. It started when her condition became publicly known, and continues to this day.
For those who do not remember, in 1990, at the age of 26, Terri experienced a still-unexplained brain injury while home alone with her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo. He subsequently became her legal guardian.
Because Terri had difficulty swallowing, she was sustained by a feeding tube, which was the only care she needed. In March of 2005, after a lengthy legal battle, her feeding tube was removed. My sister was deliberately killed by dehydration and starvation. It took nearly two agonizing weeks.
John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, was running for U.S. Senate in the November midterm elections against Dr. Mehmet Oz. It became apparent that Mr. Fetterman’s stroke had caused cognitive difficulties, which became increasingly obvious as election day approached.
To my surprise and dismay, several Christian conservatives used, and are using, the same demeaning “V” word that had been used to describe my sister to describe Mr. Fetterman. These self-identifying Christians, whose names you would surely recognize, repeatedly referred to John Fetterman this way for one reason—to ridicule him because they oppose his political views.
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The word “vegetable” is an unintended consequence of the medical term “persistent vegetative state” (PVS), a condition associated with brain injury that is defined as a state of “wakeful unresponsiveness.” The term was coined by Scottish neurosurgeon Bryan Jennett and American neurologist Fred Plum in 1972.
To apply that word to anyone—regardless of the severity of their brain injury—is telling a lie, and it denies them their God-given human dignity. A human being cannot become a “vegetable.”
I emailed one of the Christian talk show hosts who— along with his co-hosts—was using this word when speaking about John Fetterman. He responded to my message promptly, and acknowledged my concern. To my disbelief, on his very next program, he and his co-hosts used the word again when talking about Mr. Fetterman, despite our email correspondence.
This is not about hurt feelings, nor is it about defending John Fetterman and his godless ideologies. They are reprehensible, and we must fight to stop him, and anyone pushing a demonic political agenda. However, attacking Fetterman for his anti-Christian policies by referring to him as a “vegetable” because of his cognitive struggles is unchristian.
As followers of Christ, we believe that we are all created in His Divine Image, and—regardless of a person’s skin color, cognitive or physical challenges, or political beliefs—they are entitled to their God-given human dignity.
Using the “V” word has become all too common to describe people with brain injuries, but it is not only a lie, it is also dangerous because it is used to justify killing our medically vulnerable brothers and sisters by dehumanizing them. It’s akin to describing an unborn child as a “clump of cells” to defend killing a preborn baby. Indeed, what could be wrong with killing a “clump of cells” or a “vegetable” because neither is human?
We need to condemn any word or term that challenges the dignity of the human person. It is cruel, and such words should not be part of any respectable person’s vocabulary. This is especially true for Christians who are in a position to influence thousands of listeners and readers, including the next generation. These younger people, as we know, are being constantly desensitized by a steady dose of social media filth and moral relativism.
In his March 2004 address to participants in the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas”, Pope John Paul II wrote:
In opposition to such trends of thought, I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life.
A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a “vegetable” or an “animal.”
Regardless of how much disdain we have for people advocating sin, we cannot be careless, and deliberately spread lies, especially if it endangers people who are in desperate need of our protection.