For some years now the case of Theresa (Terri) Schiavo has sparked a white hot controversy in American public opinion. After collapsing at home early in 1990, Terri has been in what some call a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS). Brain damage has left her unable to communicate or swallow. As a result, she receives all her sustenance through a feeding tube.1
The controversy began when her husband, Michael Schiavo ordered the removal of her feeding tube. However, this action was opposed by her parents who are committed to saving her life.
The resulting struggle has been an emotionally charged debate, pitting “quality of life” advocates against pro-life activists. “Terri’s fight” has defied all odds: Court-ordered removal of her feeding tube, lawsuits and adverse judicial decisions. She has become a national figure reflecting a grassroots reaction to the heartless, yet relentless efforts to deprive her of life.
To properly judge her case, one must go beyond the emotional issues and look at the moral principles involved. Much depends on analyzing her condition and applying natural ethics and Church teaching.
Although there is some controversy on whether Terri’s condition is vegetative, Dr. Eugene F. Diamond, in a statement of the Catholic Medical Association, explained that this state cannot be assimilated with coma: “Coma and vegetative state are states devoid of consciousness. In order to be conscious, the patient must be awake and aware. A patient in coma is neither awake nor aware. A patient in a vegetative state is awake, but not aware. Awareness requires wakefulness, but wakefulness can be present without awareness.”
Moreover, there are many cases, albeit uncommon, of people in a PVS who have recovered, sometimes after a long periods of time. In either case, the patient’s case can be easily sustained and Dr. Diamond highlights, “the decision to withhold food and drink would be the proximate cause of death” not the illness itself. He explains, “the continuation of feedings does not constitute extraordinary care. The use of nasogastric feeding is probably a century old and gastrostomies have been employed for at least fifty years.”
Life Is Not Measured by Usefulness
Regardless of her chances for survival, the most important consideration is that a person in this state is a living person. Life is not measure by its usefulness to others or its “quality.” Life is a gift of God. A living person who depends on others for his survival, be he a baby or a disabled adult, maintains the rights of a human person.
Unfortunately, Terri’s husband and his legal team think differently. Aided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the implicit approval of many bioethicists and liberal media, Mr. Schiavo successfully petitioned for the removal of her feeding tube and hydration line. The reaction to this brutal move was so great that more than 100,000 people contacted Governor Jeb Bush demanding that he intervene. The Florida Legislature forced doctors to reinstall the feeding tube in Terri Schiavo, by passing his controversial “Terri’s law.”
In May 2004, the “Terri’s Law” was declared unconstitutional by Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird. Later, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge George Greer “issued an order preventing Schiavo’s husband from removing the feeding tube until at least Dec. 6 so lawyers can appeal his decision.” Governor Jeb Bush is petitioning for review of the case to the Supreme Court.2
The Catholic Response
Although moralists have debated artificial feeding, there is no doubt on where the Catholic Church stands. This is especially clear in light of recent and unequivocal teaching from the Vatican.3
From a moral standpoint, this dramatic case should be judged according the principles of natural law. John Paul II outlines Church teaching in his March 2004 Address to the participants in the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas.” The document stated that the term “vegetative life” is ambiguous and can lead to misinterpretation, because a man is never a vegetable, but rather maintains his humanity, regardless of his health condition. He states:
I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a “vegetable” or an “animal.”
Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a ‘vegetative state’ retain their human dignity in all its fullness. The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.
Feeding Is Not an Extraordinary Means
Facing the uncertainty of many moralists about whether artificial feeding (or to be more precise, assisted feeding) is an ordinary or an extraordinary means of health care, the Pope is clear and precise:
I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering… The evaluation of probabilities, founded on waning hopes for recovery when the vegetative state is prolonged beyond a year, cannot ethically justify the cessation or interruption of minimal care for the patient, including nutrition and hydration. Death by starvation or dehydration is, in fact, the only possible outcome as a result of their withdrawal. In this sense it ends up becoming, if done knowingly and willingly, true and proper euthanasia by omission.
A Fight for Innocent Life
According to natural law and the teachings of Holy Mother Church, it is obvious where all Catholics must stand, not only in Terri’s case but that of countless others whose feeding tubes are removed.
As a Catholic, Terri deserves the support of the faithful. It is a sad testimony of the times that all do not actually come to her defense. Rather, it falls to the countless prayers of grassroots activists, who call upon God and apply pressure to frustrate the efforts of those who would end her life.
- Linacre Institute Paper, Assisted Nutrition And Hydration In Persistent Vegetative State, By Eugene F. Diamond, M.D., http://www.cathmed.org/publications/positionpapers.html
- William R. Levesque, Judge orders Schiavo’s feeding tube in till Dec. 6 A judge’s ruling keeps Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube in place while additional legal appeals continue to be heard, St. Petersburg Times, October 23, 2004, http://www.prisonpotpourri.com /SCHIAVO/Tampabay%20Judge% 20orders%20Schiavo’s %20feeding%20 tube%20in%20till%20Dec_%206.html
- Cf. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2004/