On March 31st, 2005, after a more than decade-long legal battle, Michael Schiavo, my sister Terri Schiavo’s estranged husband, was successful with his premeditated plan to starve and dehydrate her to death. Terri’s brutal killing took almost two weeks.
It began in 1990, when at the age of twenty-six, Terri experienced a still-unexplained accident while at home alone with Michael, who subsequently became her legal guardian. Terri required only love, care, and food and water from a feeding tube since she struggled to swallow due to her brain injury. Terri was cognitively disabled and not dying of any disease or condition.
Nonetheless, Terri’s life was intentionally ended by Michael after he petitioned the court to deprive her of what we all need to live. Prior to Michael’s change of heart, my family did not anticipate there would be an issue. However, in January 2000, after a week-long trial, Florida Circuit Judge George W. Greer ruled that Michael could remove Terri’s feeding tube.
We were confident that the court would see through Michael’s motivations. After all, he was living with his fiancée, abandoning his marital promise, and starting a family by having children with this woman. Even more, Michael would inherit Terri’s close to a million-dollar medical trust fund intended for her life-long care. It made no difference to Judge Greer, who sentenced Terri to die.
What followed was the beginning of a prolonged thirteen-day death as my family was helpless—forced to watch Terri’s agonizingly painful and unjust demise. It was heart-wrenching—something no family, particularly parents, should ever have to witness.
Every anniversary of Terri’s death (this year being the 18th), I reflect on the events that led to that horrible day. Sadly, the way Terri died was not unique to her. Every day in our nation’s hospitals, nursing homes and hospices, lives are ended by either the denial or withdrawal of feeding tubes, and it can happen without the person’s consent. At the time of Terri’s death, I was unaware that our laws and healthcare policies permitted the intentional dehydration and starvation of those needing feeding tubes. I was in complete disbelief.
In response to Terri’s death, my family established the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, a patient advocacy non-profit, mostly because I was encouraged by the enormous support my family received in our effort to stop Michael from ending Terri’s life.
Terri’s case brought worldwide publicity after Florida legislatures, the Governor, the U.S. Congress, the President of the United States, the Pope, local and national disability groups, Christian and conservative media, and everyday people joined together to provide a unified voice for Terri. For the first time, the public was exposed to callous laws that are used to kill innocent, medically weak persons, and they wanted to stop it.
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Indeed, Terri received support from the people and organizations you would have never expected. Unfortunately, however, the one group of moral leaders you would have thought would be defending Terri’s life were, in effect, supporting Michael’s effort to end it — the Catholic clergy.
My family is grateful for the public support Terri received from the few outspoken Vatican officials and priests who issued strongly worded statements condemning the decision to end Terri’s life just weeks before her feeding tube was removed. Nevertheless, our spiritual leaders were relatively silent during the five-year legal struggle. Consequently, this ongoing lack of condemnation places an untold number of medically weak patients in the crosshairs of the culture of death every day.
Its genesis was Robert N. Lynch, Bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg (Terri’s bishop at the time). Bishop Lynch deserted Terri when she needed him most and allowed a local priest named Fr. Gerard Murphy to testify in the 2000 trial, maintaining that Michael’s request to remove Terri’s feeding tube was consistent with Catholic teaching.
Despite clear Church instruction that removing Terri’s feeding tube is a grave sin, a correction has never been made. It is the reason why Pope St. John Paul II issued an allocution (a teaching statement) in 2004 that spoke explicitly to Terri’s situation, clarifying Catholic teaching on the moral necessity of providing food and water as a simple requirement of ordinary care for those who are not dying and need a feeding tube to live.
Since then, not much has changed, which should concern us all. Because healthcare today has been infiltrated by a utilitarian worldview—a consequence of our Church leaders not communicating Christ’s healing compassion and how we ought to be caring for the sick.
According to the Catholic Health Association of the United States, there are more than six hundred Catholic hospitals and sixteen hundred long-term care and other health facilities. It would be impossible to know the daily number of patients who—contrary to the teachings of the Church—are receiving illicit care and treatment, especially patients who are having their feeding tubes removed to impose death.
The Catholic Church has extraordinary influence. And with more than a billion members, its faithful seek and deserve moral clarity—particularly regarding those who are marginalized. So we turn to our leaders for direction regarding unfamiliar or complex ethical health care situations and treatment choices.
Indeed, it is vitally important that our shepherds ensure that our medically defenseless are ethically treated in accord with Church guidelines—such as supervising Catholic hospitals in their duty to follow the Ethical and Religious Directive for Catholic Health Care Services, requiring that Catholic medical schools uphold authentic Catholic curricula for their medical students, and responsibly forming the enormous number of the laity to properly understand Catholic teaching as it relates to health care and the respect and dignity due to every human person.
However, a perfect example of pastoral abdication is the ongoing confusion concerning feeding tubes. Too many priests ignore the weight of Pope St. John Paul II’s 2004 allocution regarding feeding tubes and instead turn to moral theologians and Pope Pius XII’s 1957 statement to the International Congress of Anesthesiologists entitled “Prolonging Life” to support their position.
They suggest that maintaining a feeding tube is “medical treatment” and not “ordinary care” unless there is “hope of improved health.” Thus, if there is no hope of improvement, the care is not “ordinary,” and there is no moral obligation to provide certain patients with food and water.
I was involved in an Arizona case a few years ago where a young man had his feeding tube withheld against his mother’s wishes (also his primary caregiver). It was a Catholic hospital under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop. Attempts were made to contact the bishop to request his intervention. Our calls went unanswered.
I received a call from the bishop only after this young man passed away. Unexpectedly, instead of voicing concern for his death and the seriousness of the situation, the bishop asked me why I appeared on a national radio program exposing what was happening at the hospital.
The promise of today’s healthcare—much of it revealed during the pandemic—is that we are all medically vulnerable. This is why we look to our Church leaders to provide moral instruction on matters of life and death. Otherwise, what we are witnessing will surely worsen.
And while many clergy fails to teach and follow important moral medical matters effectively—even tragically advocating in some cases for the deaths of those who are medically unprotected—we need to pray for their conversion; that all may see the Shepherds of the Church faithfully guarding the flock of the Lord.