Terri's slow-motion torture death
An essay by Msgr. James C. Brunner
As this is written, the feeding tube of Terri Schiavo has been removed by order of Judge George Greer and, unless a federal court intervenes, she will die a painful death by starvation in a period ranging from four to 20 days. In all the discussion of this case it seems to me that its essential morality has been overlooked. The argument seems to rage about who has the final authority in sentencing her to death. Which legislature or court, state or federal? The husband or the family? This misses the central point: Should any political entity or any individual have the right to sentence a person in a "persistent vegetative state" to death?
We need to be clear. Removing the feeding tube from Terri is not "allowing nature to take its course" or "allowing her to die." If a man locks his daughter in a closet for two weeks and gives her no food or drink, he is causing her death. Nobody would speak of letting nature take it course but about homicide. We have here a court-ordered homicide. No governmental agency or private individual should have authority to impose a sentence of this sort on an innocent human being.
ANH, or assisted nutrition and hydration, means only the giving of food and water to persons who get hungry and thirsty. Pope John Paul II teaches that even when provided by artificial means, it remains a natural method of preserving life and not a medical act. No one thinks that spooning food into an infant's mouth when he is incapable of feeding himself is an unnatural or medical act.
Even convicted criminals and terrorists who have tried to kill us are entitled to three meals a day. On what grounds do we deny food to Terri? Judge George Greer must have graduated from the Dr. Kevorkian school of law. If he wanted to impose a death sentence why did he not just have the tube capped instead of imposing on her the additional pain of having the tube removed?
Terri is supposed to be in a "persistent vegetative state." That description has an unfortunate, dehumanizing aspect. A vegetable is something that we eat. Ironically, it derives from the Latin vegetare, which means to enliven, activate, animate or quicken. Terri is not brain-dead or comatose. She is a human who cannot function at full capacity. Humanity is something that we are, not something that we do. We are human beings, not human "doings." Dehumanizing the handicapped not only lessens them but us.
Michael Schiavo, Terri's estranged husband, reported (five years after she became handicapped) that Terri once remarked that she did not want to live on life support. If the report is accurate, does it also mean that she wished to undergo an agonizing death by starvation? Does the so-called right to die include the right to be tortured? There seems to be little difference between starving her and giving her strychnine except that the latter would be faster and perhaps less painful. Either set of circumstances would be a homicide.
How did we come to a point that we are arguing about denying food to a human being, about a culture of death rather than a culture of life? A review of developments in Nazi Germany might be enlightening. The Nazi atrocities were based on a philosophy that made the "quality of life" more important than the "sanctity of life."
The Nazis slipped into the holocaust by seven recognizable steps. 1) There was an acceptance of mercy killing to put people out of their misery. 2) When Germany suffered a severe economic crunch efforts were made to remove "useless" expenses from the budget. That led to the killing of the chronically ill with no hope of recovery (Terri Schiavo?). 3) Next came killing of the elderly who were without relatives and resources but were a burden to the state. 4) This was followed by the elimination of bums, beggars, gypsies and hopelessly poor people. 5) Then came the economy of eliminating people who were drawing welfare. 6) It was then the turn of the ideologically unwanted, political enemies of the state, "religious extremists," "disloyal" individuals who were holding the government back from providing every citizen a better quality of life. 7) Finally there came those who in the ideology of the Nazis were evolutionally unfit such as Jew and those who were not pure Aryans. Once the first step, acceptance of euthanasia was taken, all other steps followed logically.
Could a holocaust happen here? Yes. A philosophy like that of Peter Singer that would permit the killing of infants under certain circumstances could serve as its intellectual underpinning. Indeed, one may say it has already begun with the killing of 40 million unborn infants by "legal" abortion. Abortion, euthanasia, cloning and embryonic stem-cell research represent a belief that certain humans should control the making and taking of human life. This is not unlike the Third Reich. Things that were once condemned as a crime against humanity at Nuremberg are now regarded as acts of compassion.
Terri's death sentence has many implications. Women's and civil-rights groups are notably absent from defending Terri. Also missing are leftists who seem to believe in government by the judiciary since their positions do not gain approval in legislatures. They would like Judge Greer to be upheld because, as Cardinal Renato Martino remarked on Vatican radio: "If Mr. Schiavo succeeds legally in causing the death of his wife, this not only would be tragic in itself, but would be a great step toward the legal approval of euthanasia in the United States."
Liberals rightfully are opposed to torture except for Terri. They give the "right to die" priority over the right to live. Some liberals complain that intervention by Congress is a violation of states' rights, but they had no such concern for authority of states in court decisions overturning sodomy laws and gay marriage bans.
Do we want the government to allow people to be starved to death? We are not speaking here of extraordinary means of life support, but human feeding. Are we now going to kill Alzheimer's patients who have lost all capacity for memory and are unable to function without guidance? What about Parkinson's patients? If sentencing the handicapped to death continues, people are going to die under the guise of compassion and understanding when the decision will not really be about them at all but about the convenience of others. We will be making life-and-death decisions based on how much trouble it will be for us to let them live.
There are millions in nursing homes who cannot wash and feed themselves. In that sense they are very much like Terri. Her lot may soon be theirs. Roe v. Wade allowed killing human beings in the womb. Now, beginning with Terri, human beings outside the womb can be destroyed. Now judges decide who gets food and water.
Dr. Kevorkian was jailed for helping to dispatch people who wanted to die. How is Terri's case any different?