The case of Terri Schindler-Schiavo is a test for all of us. It’s not a test of whether we will kill cognitively disabled people by refusing them food and water. That’s a test we’ve already failed.
Denying people food and water so that they starve and dehydrate to death happens routinely throughout the country. Rather, Terri's case is a test of whether we will wake up and realize that letting patients decide they want to be killed means that some patients will be killed against their will.
People often leave advance directives saying what treatment they do or do not want. But Terri had no such directive, and her parents and siblings say she never indicated she wanted to be dehydrated and starved to death. The problem, of course, is that if dying is a “right,” then why take it away from those who forgot to tell us they want it? Should this “right” be exercised only by those well enough to express it?
For that matter, why should the right to escape a burdensome existence be limited to those with cognitive disabilities or other illnesses? What about the teenager whose life has suddenly become burdensome because he lost his girlfriend, failed his courses, and got thrown off the football team? If such a student indicates a desire for death, we call the suicide hotlines. Yet we are paving the way for courts to decide that such teens should be free to end their lives.
One advocate for Terri's death, reacting to the re-insertion of her feeding tube, declared that it is “simply inhumane and barbaric to interrupt her death process.” But Terri Schindler-Schiavo is not a dying patient. She simply doesn't function at the same level as the rest of us. There was no “death process” underway until her food and water were taken away. That's what is inhumane and barbaric. And this is a test for all of us, to see if we remember the difference.
While there are such things as worthless treatments, there is no such thing as a worthless life. Food and water, furthermore, constitute the most basic care. We don't come back from a meal saying we just got our latest “medical treatment.”
Terri's parents and siblings are heroes. Were it not for their desire to care for Terri despite her limitations, she would have been killed without us ever hearing her name. The future of society is determined by the strength or weakness of the family, by its readiness to care or its willingness to kill.
Some have said that the government should stay out of this case, and that Governor Jeb Bush had no business ordering that Terri should be given food and water. But Jeb Bush is a hero, too. He understands that no public servant is permitted to turn his back on members of the public who are being mistreated. He, and many others, have passed the test this case puts before us.
It falls to us to do the same.
Fr. Pavone is the Founding Director of Priests for Life. You may contact Priests for Life at PO Box 141172, Staten Island, NY 10314; Tel: 888-PFL-3448 or 718-980-4400; Fax: 718-980-6515; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.priestsforlife.org.