We face a modern paradox that’s difficult to reconcile. Animals are treated like persons, while human beings are treated as non-persons. We have only to look at the battle taking place for Terri Schiavo’s life in Florida to see that this is true.
Because of her disability, Schiavo's husband and the Florida courts decided that it was permissible to end a woman's life by starving her to death. Right-to-die advocates say that in the case of Terri Schiavo, the courts have spoken. In the nick of time, Gov. Jeb Bush, a Catholic, was able to intervene.
Sometimes it seems our culture treats our pets more humanely than we treat our fellow human beings. We could never imagine starving an animal to death. So, why is it okay to starve a human being?
Sadly, our culture's attitude towards life and the actions of the Florida court are frighteningly similar to the attitudes and court actions taken by another culture 70 years ago. That culture, too, had elevated the treatment of animals while at the same time demonstrating a tremendous lack of respect for human life.
In 1933, at the same time the German courts were passing laws against cruelty to animals, they were calling for the sterilization of all psychiatric patients and codifying laws that would eventually lead to the deaths of 275,000 handicapped and mentally disabled patients. And we know what that was the prelude to.
How painfully similar the scene looks today. We have certainly elevated the status of animals.
Pet owners can now purchase health insurance for their animals, even while 42 million people in our country are still without health insurance. In one case I recently came across, a family chose their dog's health ahead of the health of their own two preschool children. They bring their cancer-ridden dying dog to the vet for weekly chemo-treatments, even though it means the animal's toxic excrement will end up in their yard.
Pet owners concerned about their pets' behavior can hire a pet psychologist or psychic to explore the animal's psyche. Pet owners who are on vacation can have pet limousines pick up their pets for a week-long stay at a pet spa where the animals are treated to three-course meals and piped-in music.
On the Animal Planet, television programs such as “Animal Precinct” and “Animal Cops” follow animal cruelty investigators as they track down animal abusers and bring them to justice. Princeton's Dr. Peter Singer goes furthest: He wants to grant apes the same basic moral and legal protections afforded human beings.
Meanwhile, in Pinellas Park, Florida, without the benefit of a human cruelty investigator, a disabled woman would have starved to death if the governor hadn't intervened. The moral: When you try to raise animals to be equal to people, you only succeed in lowering the status of people below that of animals.
Secular media reports describe Schiavo as being in a “vegetative state.” But she's a human being, not a cabbage.
In his 1995 book, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives, St. Louis University professor William Brennan outlined how the “semantics of oppression” have been used to justify the killing of Native Americans, African Americans, European Jews, women, the unborn, and dependent or disabled persons.
The same terminology is being used today. As an example, Brennan quotes philosopher John Lachs who said, “I cannot make myself believe that the unconscious vegetables in our hospitals are in any sense human.”
Applying such language “to humans whose bodies are damaged or unconscious can change our whole willingness to care for and give to them of our best,” said Dr. R. Lamerton, a medical officer with St. Joseph's Hospice in London.
Disabled activist Mark Pickup, of Human Life Matters, told of a telephone call he recently received from an aged Canadian woman who was born in Germany in 1940.
“I've been disabled all of my life,” she told Pickup. “My parents had to hide me for three years before they snuck me out of the country. The government would have killed me.”
“Nothing has changed,” she continued. “The only thing that has changed is the country. It's no longer Germany, but the U.S.”
Thankfully there are heroes in the United States, too. They have been willing to confront the Florida courts, and they include the prayerful protestors, the pro-life and anti-euthanasia advocates and attorneys, Florida speaker of the house Johnnie Byrd, and Gov. Jeb Bush.
Their presence calls to mind the words of another hero, Count Clemens August von Galen, the Bishop of Munster, Germany.
In remarks delivered on Aug. 3, 1941 in the Cathedral of Saint Lambert, von Galen spoke out for the handicapped and mentally ill.
He explored the reasons “that these unhappy patients are to be killed” and concluded: “It is simply because in the opinion of some doctor, in the view of some committee, they are 'unworthy to live'… and that they are like old machines which can no longer work, like an old horse which has become incurably lame or like a cow which can no longer give any milk…. We are not here dealing with machines or horses or cows…. We are speaking here of human beings, of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, poor people and invalids.”
Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register and editor of Saints of the Jubilee available at 1stbooks.com. He resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota. This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.