Five years ago, Terri Schindler Schiavo died after having been refused food and water for two weeks, by order of a judge, in what writer Nat Hentoff called the “longest public execution in American history.”
The drama of Terri’s life and death was played out in the news for weeks. “Complex” seemed to be the watchword for many, but some things were simple and clear. Terri was a woman living with severe disabilities. She wasn’t comatose or “brain dead”; she wasn’t terminally ill or dying. Her heart beat on its own and her lungs worked without assistance.
But Terri could not feed herself without assistance, a limitation that actor Christopher Reeve also experienced for years before his death.
The media portrayed it as a “right to die” case. An ABC News Poll, repeated ad nauseam over the course of those weeks, claimed that 63 percent of Americans wanted to see Terri die. The poll was a fraud. It said Terri was “on life support,” which she wasn’t, and that she had “no consciousness,” which was hotly disputed. It framed the question as whether she should be “kept alive” or “allowed to die” - words freighted with meaning. Imagine if those polled had been asked whether she should be “allowed to continue living” or “allowed to eat” or whether her parents should be “allowed to feed her.” I believe Americans are better than this poll reflected.
To frame it as a “right to die” is to distort not only the facts, but the notion of true freedom - to reduce it to a radical individualism that renders every other person a threat to your freedom and therefore your enemy. What a terrible irony that the media allowed a puerile, self-absorbed husband to appear to be defending his wife’s freedom to die when clearly the only freedom he was pursuing was his own.
Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote: “For all the attention we have paid to the Schiavo case, we have asked many of the wrong questions. We have asked whether she is really in a persistent vegetative state, instead of reflecting on what we owe people in a persistent vegetative state. We have asked what she would have wanted as a competent person imagining herself in such a condition, instead of asking what we owe the person who is now with us, a person who can no longer speak for herself, a person entrusted to the care of her family and the protection of her society.”
A year before her death, Pope John Paul II addressed a gathering in Rome on the issue of the obligation to provide nutrition and hydration to people in a persistent vegetative state and, by implication, to patients less severely disabled. The question had persisted: Is assisted food and water more like extraordinary medical treatment, which can be withheld or removed, or more like basic health care, which always should be provided? John Paul answered that question in very clear terms: “The administration of food and water, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act,” he said, and should be considered “morally obligatory” as long as it provides nourishment and alleviation of suffering.
Terri Schiavo was entrusted to her family, her husband, to all of us as her human family. Food and water provided her nourishment and comfort, so we were bound to see them as part of what we owed to her and owe to all people who are helpless and in our care. Here is someone who died because she did not receive the basic health care she deserved.
She died shortly after John Paul himself was intubated and given assisted nutrition and hydration. I am sure I was not the only one who saw a miracle in this profound symbolism and solidarity.
She died during Holy Week, and I know that many Catholics, as they walked the Stations of the Cross, remembered that among Christ’s last words were, “I thirst,” and thought of Terri.
We are all diminished by this young woman’s death. But we can continue to hope that her suffering touched hearts and minds with the truth of her humanity and that her death will lead our whole society to a greater commitment to protect the most helpless patients among us.
May the soul of Terri Schiavo rest in peace.
Cathy Ruse, senior fellow for legal studies at the Family Research Council, was formerly the chief spokesman on human life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.