Terri Schiavo: A Life That Mattered and Still Matters

“Our family’s made a lot of mistakes,” write Bob and Mary Schindler, “but the one thing we don’t do is lie.” Most of you will recognize Bob and Mary as the parents of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. Terri is the Florida woman whose husband starved her to death with the permission of the Florida judiciary.

It Could Happen to Anyone

The above quote harkens back to an earlier time within the court proceedings, a time when the family might have saved their oldest daughter. They simply needed to lie under oath. The family refused. They would fight hard, but they would not resort to any means inconsistent with the Catholic faith.

A year has passed since Terri’s death. I’m sitting in the stands at the YMCA, watching my oldest daughter splash around in the children’s pool. I have just finished reading A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo by Bob, Mary, their son Bobby, and their daughter Suzanne. Amidst the broad smiles, the children’s laughter and a slight scent of chlorine, I wonder: “What if this were my daughter?”

This is the question that initially drove my wife and I, back when we lived in Florida, to go to the hospice in 2002 and offer our support to Bob and Mary. The family are what we in south Florida called good people; not perfect people, but people we admire for their moral fortitude. A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo is the story of these good people. It is the story of how God called an ordinary Catholic family to take an extraordinary stand for the culture of life.

We Owe Her This

“We’re an intensely private family who loathe the spotlight and would have given anything not to have it shine on us,” the Schindlers write in the preface. “Many people have asked us to write a book, and we’ve always said no, refusing to open ourselves up to the pain of public display all over again. But we keep thinking of Terri and how she died, and we realize we owe her this book as a way of making sure that what happened will never happen again.”

This book reads like our lasting impression of the family. It is not without its faults, but these are worn openly throughout the book. For instance, Bobby is candid about his family’s use of the term “vegetative state”:

It’s easier for people to rationalize taking a human life if she’s in a 'vegetative state.” We fell into that trap ourselves. We had to argue that Terri wasn’t PVS — even though she didn’t fall into PVS criteria — because only then would she be allowed to live. But why did Terri have to prove anything? She’s a human being.

In an ideal pro-life world, the Schindler family would not have been forced to argue against Terri being PVS. That Terri is human would prove sufficient. Yet the situation was far from ideal, and thus the family often wrestled with how best to achieve their end of saving Terri.

For All Disabled People

These candid admissions strengthen the family’s credibility as they share Terri’s story. At times I may question certain actions, but I never doubt the family’s honesty or integrity. For instance, Terri’s siblings and close friends knew Terri was having serious marital problems prior to her collapse. Bob and Mary Schindler also suspected something wrong. Not too long after Terri collapsed, however, the family signed away to Michael any legal claim on Terri’s medical care.

The rest of the book chronicles the decade the family spent in the courts trying to undo this early mistake. It was a mistake made in good faith — the family honestly believed Michael would live up to his wedding vows and look after Terri’s best interest. This made Michael’s betrayal all the more shocking shortly after he won the civil lawsuit.

In the end, this is why this book proves so powerful: the family shares their emotions, reflections, triumphs and ultimate loss. Through it all their faith in God remains steadfast while they never doubt the righteousness of their cause. Having lost the battle over Terri, the Schindlers are now leading the battle for all disabled people whose lives are threatened by the proponents of euthanasia.

“Bob and I believe that God put Terri on earth to serve as a beacon,” Mary explains near the beginning of the book, “that she was taken from us so that others who suffer Terri’s plight will not be taken from those who love them.” I recommend this book to anyone concerned with the growing push to legalize euthanasia.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Pete Vere is a canon lawyer and a Catholic author. He recently co-authored Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books) with Michael Trueman and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor) with Patrick Madrid. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.

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