I spent the night of March 30, 2005, in a Florida hospice. I was at the bedside of Terri Schiavo during the last 14 hours of her earthly life, right up until five minutes before her death. During that time with Terri, joined by her brother and sister, I told Terri over and over that she had many friends around the country, many people who were praying for her and were on her side. I told her the same thing during my visits to her in the months before her feeding tube was removed. I am convinced she understood.
I’ve known Terri’s family since 1999. They put my name on the short, court-approved list of people who could walk past the police officers stationed outside to visit Terri’s room. Why a court-approved visitor’s list? Because euthanasia advocates didn’t want anyone contradicting their narrative that Terri was an unresponsive person in some kind of vegetative state. The only way to prove she was responsive was to see her for yourself.
I went to see her in September 2004 and again in February 2005. When her mom first introduced her to me, she stared at me intently. She focused her eyes. She would focus her eyes on whoever was talking to her. If somebody spoke to her from another part of the room, she would turn her head and her eyes toward the person speaking.
I told Terri she had many people around the country and around the world who loved her and were praying for her. She looked at me attentively. I said, “Terri now we are going to pray together, I want to give you a blessing, let’s say some prayers.” So I laid my hand on her head. She closed her eyes. I said the prayer. She opened her eyes again at the end of the prayer. Her dad, who had a mustache, leaned over to kiss her and said, “OK Terri, now here comes the tickle.” She smiled and laughed and after he kissed her I saw her return the kiss. Her mom asked her a question at a certain point and I heard her voice. She was trying to respond. She was making sounds in response to her mother’s question, not just at odd times and meaningless moments. I heard her trying to say something, but she was not able to articulate the words owing to her disability. She was certainly responsive.
The night before she died, I was in her room for a total of three to four hours, and then for another hour the next morning — her final hour. To describe the way she looked as “peaceful” is a total distortion of what I saw. She was a person who for 13 days had no food or water. She was, as you would expect, very drawn in her appearance as opposed to when I had seen her before. Her eyes were open but they were moving from one side to the next, constantly darting back and forth. I watched her for hours, and the best way I can describe the look on her face is “terrified sadness.”
Her mouth appeared to be frozen open. She was panting rapidly. It wasn’t peaceful in any sense of the word. Her brother Bobby was sitting on one side of the bed, and I was on the other facing him. Her sister Suzanne was on my left. We had a very intense time of prayer, urging Terri to entrust herself completely to Jesus. I assured her of the love and prayers and concern of so many people.
Who else was in the room with me, Bobby, Suzanne and Terri? Police officers — the whole time. There was always at least one, sometimes two, three, or more — armed police officers in the room. Why were they in the room? They wanted to make sure that we didn’t do anything that we weren’t supposed to do, like give her communion or maybe a glass of water.
There was a little night table in the room. I could put my hand on the table and on Terri’s head all within arm’s reach. On that table was a vase of flowers filled with water. I said to myself, this is absurd, totally absurd. These flowers are being treated better than this woman. She has not had a drop of water for almost two weeks. Had I dipped my hand in that water and put it on her tongue, the officer would have led me out, probably under arrest.
Terri’s husband, Michael Schiavo, and his team were angry with me. They had hoped that they could present Terri’s death as a merciful and gentle act. My words took the veil of euphemism away, calling this a killing and giving eyewitness testimony to the fact that it was anything but gentle.
Another aspect of the Terri Schiavo tragedy is that many people misunderstand its cause and, therefore, its solution. They think the problem was that Terri did not leave any written instructions about whether she wanted to be kept alive. In order to avoid any such problem in their own lives, they are now told that they have to draw up a “living will.” This is both erroneous and dangerous.
Terri’s case is not about the withdrawal of life-saving medical treatment, but rather about the killing of a healthy person whose life some regarded as worthless. Terri was not dying, was not on life support, and did not have any terminal illness. Because some thought she would not want to live with her disability, they insisted on introducing the cause of death, namely, dehydration.
The danger in our culture is not that we will be overtreated, but rather that we will be undertreated. We already have the right to refuse medical treatment. However, we run the risk of losing the right to receive the most basic humane care — like food and water — in the event we have a disability and become inconvenient.
• Father Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life and president of the National Pro-Life Religious Council.