Her Silent Fight: What Terri Has Taught Us About the Culture of Life

Blessed Intervention

Through divine providence, the present authors were blessed with the opportunity several months ago to be present at the prayer vigil for Terri Schindler-Schiavo. Terri is a 39-year-old woman who lives in a Florida hospice. She has required a feeding tube since collapsing 13 years ago. This collapse left her severely brain-damaged. After receiving an extensive cash settlement in a medical malpractice lawsuit, her husband Michael sought to remove her feeding tube.

Enlisting the support of George Felos — a well-known attorney, New Age practitioner, and euthanasia advocate — Michael received permission from the courts to carry through with the planned starvation and dehydration of Terri. Michael claimed that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state. He claimed Terri would not have wanted to live this way. For the most part, the civil courts accepted these claims and for one week Terri went without food or water.

Yet God blessed Terri with parents who understand the value of human life. Both authors got to know Bob and Mary Schindler during the course of the prayer vigil, and we found them to be good people. They were neither the religious extremists nor the unrealistic dreamers that the mainstream media stereotyped them to be. Both of Terri’s parents recognize that she will never fully recover from her present condition without a miracle. Yet they are prepared to provide Terri with the special care she will always require. They are willing to do so because they recognize their daughter is a human person and not merely a convenience.

Fortunately, Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida State Legislature intervened to save Terri. As of this writing, Terri has been rehydrated, her feeding tube reinserted, and she continues to receive the basic care she needs. Thankfully, it appears her vital organs suffered no permanent damage during the week she was denied food and water. Thus the culture of life for now has won the battle over Terri, but the culture war continues. Like Pope St. Pius X and modernism, we have not destroyed the culture of death in the battle over Terri. We have simply, for the time being, driven involuntary euthanasia back underground.

A Person is Never an Object

Yet why the battle over Terri to begin with? As a seminarian, one of the first principles of moral theology Fr. Rob learned is the following: You should never treat persons as if they were things. It is always wrong to treat persons like objects. We make things for practical purposes. We make things to suit our own convenience. If something no longer serves its purpose, like a broken computer, we either fix it or throw it away.

But persons are not here for our convenience! God created human beings in His image and likeness. He created us as goods unto ourselves. Thus by our very existence we serve a purpose in God’s eyes. Even if we have never done anything “useful” in the eyes of the world, a human being would still be a good unto himself in the eyes of God.

Thus we treat persons differently from how we treat things. This is simply common sense. God never became a hammer and nail to save a broken table. Yet He thought that human beings were so important, so valuable, so precious that He became man and sacrificed Himself on the Cross for our sake. He became one of us to save us from our brokenness. He took our human nature upon Himself and united His divinity to it.

Our human nature, in Christ, is united with the divine nature. That means that human nature is elevated, by Christ, to having infinite dignity and worth. As the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once stated: “Next to the sacrament of Our Lord, the person sitting next to you is the holiest thing you will ever set your eyes upon.” As broken as she is, Terri is that human person sitting next to us. And as a baptized and confirmed Catholic, she bears our Lord’s indelible mark upon her soul.

Of course, this is not the way the culture of death phrases this controversy. They use noble-sounding phrases like “right to die,” or “death with dignity.” Those who wish to see Terri dead neglect to mention she was not dying when her feeding tube was pulled, nor do they bother to explain what dignity there is in dying of starvation and dehydration — a death our society spares even its most heinous criminals.

Terri is responsive to those around her in distinctive ways. In other words, she responds to different people differently. Numerous doctors also testify that Terri is not in a persistent vegetative state or coma. Finally, they testify that Terri would almost certainly benefit from rehabilitation therapy — therapy her husband Michael has steadfastly denied for 10 years.

Terri is Worth Saving!

Much of the argument about Terri and the withdrawal of food and water has focused on her “recoverability.” Those who succumb to the culture of death and favor “letting Terri die” say that she won’t recover, that her situation is hopeless, and ask why anyone would prolong such a limited and “meaningless” life. They fail to recognize life as meaningful in and of itself.

On the other hand, those trying to save Terri frequently point out that Terri could recover, that you can’t definitely say that her recovery would be impossible, and therefore her life should be preserved. This is the position of those who embrace the culture of life. It is in keeping with the natural law authored by God in the hearts of men, and as such is morally superior to the position advanced by the culture of death. Yet the whole debate surrounding Terri’s recoverability is really a red herring.

The real issue concerns the value of human life. People develop all sorts of conditions, varying in severity, from which they will never recover. Some of those conditions severely compromise a person’s physical quality of life.

For example, in terms of mental and cognitive disability, one “unrecoverable” disorder is Down’s Syndrome. As an active member of the International Order of Alhambra — a Catholic family organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and cognitively challenged — Pete spends extensive time with individuals who have been diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. These people will never recover from this condition. In some cases, those affected by Down’s Syndrome will learn enough life skills to function in society. Many never even reach that point.

As of yet, society still has not begun to openly kill the mentally and cognitively challenged. Most of us still possess sufficient traces of humanity to recognize that the killing of the mentally and cognitively disabled is both inhumane and barbaric. Nevertheless, Terri’s situation opens the door to such a fearful possibility. Who, 30 years ago, would have imagined that the decriminalization of abortion would eventually lead to the horror of partial-birth abortion? Terri’s condition is somewhat similar. Her behavior is not consistent with what usually comes to mind when we hear the expression “persistent vegetative state.” Rather, if the average person with little formal medical training happened to come across Terri, he or she might simply assume that Terri had Down’s Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy.

Yet like recoverability, Terri’s mental and cognitive capacity is also beside the point. In the end, Terri is worth saving because she is a human person. For personhood is inherent in the human being. To separate personhood from human identity is as disordered as contraception which separates sex from marriage and/or the marital act from procreation. Personhood and human beings are so joined because that’s how God designed each of us. And God made Terri Schiavo that way. Those who know and love Terri see her as a person, not because they are deluded, but because they look beyond what she can or cannot do, to see who she is.

Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, where he serves as associate pastor to St. Joseph Parish in St. Joseph, MI.

Pete Vere, JCL, earned his ecclesiastical licentiate in canon law from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. In his spare time, he volunteers as a Deputy Regional Director for the International Order of Alhambra — a Catholic family organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and developmentally challenged.

(This article originally appeared in Lay Witness, a publication of Catholics United for the Faith, Inc., and is used by permission. Join Catholics United for the Faith and enjoy the many benefits of membership.)

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