- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

As Terri Schiavo lay dying, her organs slowly mummifying from the effects of prolonged, court-ordered dehydration and starvation, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from her parents that might have saved her life.

Her parents argued Mrs. Schiavo’s right to due process under the law had been denied, a claim summarily rejected — without even the pretense of a full hearing — by a District Court and upheld by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Less than a week later, however, the Supreme Court sat in rapt attention as attorneys argued a very different life-and-death case, this one involving a convicted rapist and murderer whose case found its way to the high court because he is a noncitizen who, it is claimed, was denied full and adequate access to diplomats from his home country when criminally charged.

In both cases, lower courts had already ordered the termination of life — in the case of Terri Schiavo, by refusing her food and water on the basis of a Florida state court ruling; in the case of Jose Ernesto Medellin, by the judgment of a Texas jury he was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” of raping and murdering two teenage girls in 1992.

So, why did the court give so much more deference to Medellin’s claims than to Mrs. Schiavo’s parents? It’s hard to escape the conclusion it is because many people, including the judges who have considered her case, believe Terry Schiavo’s disabilities render her no longer fully human. And in this judgment the medical establishment is fully complicit.

The very term used to describe Mrs. Schiavo’s condition — persistent vegetative state — conjures up images of a subhuman, subanimal life form.

As one health-care professional wrote me after hearing me on television describe the pain Mrs. Schiavo might suffer as she slowly dehydrated to death, “If you touch a venus fly trap plant (a stimuli) it will immediately close its petals (a reaction). That doesn’t mean it feels or cognizes [sic] that there is a fly that has landed.” Few public comments have been as blunt, but the sentiment seeps through nonetheless in the words we use to describe Mrs. Schiavo’s condition.

Although the media endlessly tried to compare Mrs. Schiavo’s predicament to that of cancer or Alzheimer’s patients whose families choose to withhold or withdraw life-support at the end of their lives, Mrs. Schiavo was not dying — at least not until a judge ordered she not be fed or given water. She required no machines to help her breathe, no kidney dialysis to remove toxins from her body, no pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat.

She was even able to swallow on her own — she swallowed two liters of saliva every day, until severe hydration turned her mouth and tongue to dry leather — which raises the possibility she may not even have required the feeding tube the judge ordered removed. Until her court-ordered ordeal, she was a relatively healthy, if severely brain damaged woman whose longevity alone was testament to a will to live.

Those who wanted to end Terri Schiavo’s life did everything in their power to dehumanize her. But Terri was not a “vegetable.” She was not “brain dead.” She was severely disabled. She could not care for herself. She could not “think” or communicate normally. But she was a person in the clear meaning of the Constitution, that is unless we have now collectively written such persons out of the Constitution.

We have been down this road before when we bought and sold Africans and their progeny as mere “property” and when our courts determined the unborn are not persons unless their mothers choose to carry them to term.

Now we seem on the verge of declaring — de facto — that the severely mentally deficient are not persons either. Who will be next — the homosexual suffering from AIDS-related dementia, the Alzheimer’s patient who cannot feed herself, the infant with cerebral palsy or spina bifida or hydrocephalus? Will we suddenly find it convenient, even merciful, to let them starve?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson joined protesters outside Mrs. Schiavo’s hospice Tuesday, declaring, “This is one of the profound moral and ethical breaches of our time. …we pray for a miracle.” It should not take a miracle to convince the Supreme Court an innocent, brain-damaged woman deserved as much consideration as a convicted rapist and murderer.

But we live in dark times.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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