Saving Terri Schiavo
TFP Calls on America to Reject Roe v. Wade’s Bitter Fruits
America is unsettled over the case of Terri Schiavo.
Fifteen years ago, she suffered brain damage that left her totally dependent on others for basic care, including nourishment. Pursuant to a court order, this nourishment is scheduled to end March 18, when Michael Schiavo, her estranged husband and guardian, will have her feeding tube removed.1 Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, have been battling in the courts to prevent their daughter’s death by starvation.
Terri Schiavo’s Condition
Food and water are all Terri needs to stay alive. Reliable health care specialists testify that she is not comatose and can improve substantially with physical therapy. Many neurologists believe that eventually she could feed herself and even move from her wheelchair into her bed.2
Every Human Being Has a Fundamental Right to Life
Man’s fundamental rights stem from his free and rational nature. No human law can abrogate these fundamental human rights. Man’s inviolable right to life is the first right and therefore the basis for all others.
For a guardian to claim, or a court to grant, the “right” to dispose of a charge’s life is tantamount to saying that the person is not a human being but a thing: chattel that the guardian has – as stipulated in the maxim of Roman law – the right “to make use, enjoy the fruits, and dispose of.”
Yet nobody has the right to reduce a human being to chattel, be that human being a defenseless embryo, a totally dependent newborn, an elderly person, or one debilitated by trauma or illness.
Consequently, under natural law, no mother has the right to intentionally abort the child in her womb or to starve her newborn. Likewise, no family member or government official has the right to starve an innocent woman to death simply because she is disabled and burdensome.
Natural Law Binds Everybody in All Times
This natural law that protects the right to life and all other fundamental human rights is man’s perception of the eternal law, the sovereign and divine will that created and ordered all things. Natural law sets the rules for moral behavior and should be the cornerstone of all human positive law.
Accordingly, the maxims of natural law are knowable by human reason. Almost 2,000 years ago, in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul stated that the pagans knew the demands of this law, because they are “written in the hearts.”3 That the ancient Greeks knew this is attested by the verses of Antigone (442 B.C.) in which the dramatist Sophocles writes of the “unwritten and unchanging laws” that govern human behavior.4
Natural Law Anchored in Divine and Eternal Law
When human laws are not based on these “unwritten and unchanging laws,” they are based on the will of legislators and judges. Whereas laws based on natural law bind with all the strength of human nature, those based on the will of legislators or judges bind only with the strength of their ability to enforce compliance.
However, on the strictly natural plane, the will of one man is equal to that of any other; therefore, no man can impose his will on others. Only a law backed by a will superior to man’s can bind other men. This superior will is that of God, the supreme legislator.5
Society Without Natural Law Leads to Tyranny
When natural law and its ultimate foundation in God’s eternal law is denied, either all law becomes impossible or it is left at the mercy of human caprice and easily becomes tyrannical. The power of legislators and judges becomes unlimited and consequently, through the approval or interpretation of laws, the greatest aberrations are imposed on society.
The “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21) is abandoned and society sinks into a tyranny where the most sacred rights are cut down and trod under foot.
From Roe v. Wade to Terri Schiavo
In 1973, the Supreme Court created the “right” of a mother to kill her unborn child. This decision was molded by a philosophy opposed to natural law and based on a mistaken notion of liberty.
Those who subscribe to this false philosophy naturally tend to take it to its final consequences, pressing for the creation of other “rights” equally detached from and opposed to natural law, such as embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, the practice of homosexuality, pedophilia, same-sex “marriage,” and euthanasia.
Terri Schiavo’s death by starvation is the logical progression of the unnatural philosophy informing Roe v. Wade.
Human Life Is Not Measured by Material Usefulness
Human life is a precious gift, indeed the greatest gift one can possibly receive in the natural order. It cannot be quantified, and its usefulness does not depend on others or society. First and foremost, human life is a personal and unique gift. Every human being is different and a masterpiece of the Creator.
The quality of human life does not depend on its material usefulness or exercise. Rather, this quality stems from the intrinsic value of human life, from the intellectual substance that is individualized in a specific human being.
The priceless gift of human life is present in the fragile newborn who cries when hungry and smiles when comforted; in the unconscious or crippled patient lying motionless on a hospital bed; in the aged man who has come to the end of his strength. Fragility and dependence provide charity – that most sublime Christian virtue – with an occasion for disinterested sacrifice and devotion. These lives so dependent on others possess a true and superior usefulness, one that ennobles and sanctifies the human race.
Human Life Is Never Reduced to Vegetative Life
Saint Thomas Aquinas affirms that “the intellectual soul contains virtually whatever belongs to the sensitive soul of brute animals, and to the nutritive souls of plants.6 Thus, in common with the plant kingdom, men are born, grow and nourish themselves; in common with the animal kingdom, they have sensibility and movement; and in common with the angels, they have a spiritual life, intellect and will.
There are not three “souls” or vital principles in a human being. Rather, there is but one spiritual and immortal soul, which contains the two lower dynamic principles.7
To say that a patient is in a “vegetative state” is to speak metaphorically. The patient is still a human being, not a plant. Though the body’s debilities do not permit the patient’s soul to display its full splendor, that soul is still there. It is present in all its rationality, and therefore the patient is entitled to all the fundamental rights inherent to a human being.
While it is legitimate to use the expression persistent vegetative life as a technical simplification for medical purposes, one cannot turn a description of the patient’s state into a definition of the patient. One cannot attribute to a technical description a philosophical meaning it does not have. Even when in a state of “persistent vegetative life,” a human being remains a human being.8
Of What Use Are Human Rights, If the Right to Nourishment Is Denied?
If man has a fundamental right to life, then he has a fundamental right to nourishment, since life depends upon nourishment. This right surpasses the right to private property. If a starving person has no other means to feed himself, he may take food from others who need it less. The inability of a newborn or a disabled person to feed himself does not diminish his right to nourishment.
It is not compassion but cruelty to deny an innocent human being food and water until he dies. This is to subject him to a slow and excruciatingly painful death. To paraphrase Madame Roland, “O compassion, compassion, how many crimes are committed in your name!”
The Rights of Patients in a “Persistent Vegetative State”
A joint statement of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations defined the rights of patients in a so-called persistent vegetative state as follows:
In particular, vegetative state patients have the right to:
- Correct and thorough diagnostic evaluation, in order to avoid possible mistakes and to orient rehabilitation in the best way;
- Basic care, including hydration, nutrition, warming and personal hygiene;
- Prevention of possible complications and monitoring for any possible signs of recovery;
- Adequate rehabilitative processes, prolonged in time, favoring the recovery and maintenance of all progress achieved;
- Be treated as any other patients with reference to general assistance and affective relationships.9
John Paul II: There Is a Moral Obligation to Provide Nutrition and Hydration
Pope John Paul II has stressed the moral obligation to provide adequate nourishment to patients in conditions such as Terri Schiavo’s:
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.10
Vehement Appeal to Government Representatives
The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), along with many other pro-life, pro-family organizations, urges our government representatives to intervene decisively in Terri Schiavo’s case.
We urge Congress to approve and President Bush to sign into law the Incapacitated Persons Legal Protection Act of 2005 and any other effective legislative measures.
We urge President Bush to nominate and the Senate to confirm federal judges with the courage necessary to honor the unchanging norms of natural law and reverse the nation’s deplorable moral slide since Roe v. Wade.
We urge state governments to take similar steps in their jurisdictions.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 opened one of the most decisive phases of our history. Dangers we did not imagine just a few years ago threaten America today. To face them victoriously, we need more than the concerted and dedicated sacrifices of the nation. We need the support of Divine Providence.
We can count on this blessing if as a nation we turn the tide of moral relativism and honor God and His law.
March 15, 2005
The American TFP
- Although Michael Schiavo refuses to relinquish his legal rights as Terri’s husband and guardian, he is reportedly living with another woman with whom he has had two children. See “Parents ask judge to let Schiavo divorce her husband,” CNN, Mar. 1, 2005 at www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/03/01/brain.damaged.woman.ap.
- See Eugene F. Diamond, “Assisted Nutrition and Hydration in Persistent Vegetative State” at www.cathmed.org/publications/positionpapers.html; Statement of the Catholic Medical Association: Regarding the provision of artificial nutrition and hydration in the case of Mrs. Terri Schindler-Schiavo, Feb. 2005, at www.cathmed.org/newsroom/newsreleases.html; Steven Ertelt, “Terri Schiavo Can Still Be Rehabilitated, Nobel Prize-Nominated Doctor Says,” LifeNews.com, Mar. 7, 2005, at www.lifenews.com/bio748.html; and sworn statements by Dr. William Scott Russell at www.hospicepatients.org/william-scott-russell-md-05-01-affidavit-re-terri-schiavo.html and by speech language pathologist Sara Green Mele, M.S. CCC-SLP, at www.earnedmedia.org/mele.htm.
- Rom. 2:14-15.
- “Zeus [God] did not announce those laws to me. And Justice living with the gods below sent no such laws for men. I did not think anything which you proclaimed strong enough to let a mortal to override the gods and their unwritten and unchanging laws. They’re not just for today or yesterday, but exist forever, and no one knows where they first appeared. So I did not mean to let a fear of any human will lead to my punishment among the gods.” Sophocles, Antigone, [Ian Johnston, trans.] at www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/sophocles/antigone.htm. (Our emphasis.)
- . “Once we grant that human laws can impose a moral obligation, it is easy to prove that their binding power is derived from God. For this power supposes superiority over the consciences of men. But whence do men derive such superiority? Not from themselves, because all men are equal by their nature. This power therefore, must be derived from God, who alone is the superior of all men and has power over their consciences.” Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J., A Brief Textbook of Moral Philosophy, revised by Fr. Henry S. Spalding, S.J. (New York: Schwartz, Kirwin and Fauss, 1924), p. 63.
- Summa Theologica, I, q. 76, a. 3. See also I, q. 78.
- “We must therefore conclude that in man the sensitive soul, the intellectual soul, and the nutritive soul are numerically one soul.” Summa, I, q. 76, a. 3.
- See Address of John Paul II to the Participants in the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas,” Mar. 20, 2004, www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2004/march/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20040320_congress-fiamc_en.html.
- Pontifical Academy for Life and World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, Joint Statement on the Vegetative State, made at the International Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas in Rome, Mar. 10-17, 2004, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdlife/documents/rc_pont-acd_life_doc_20040320_joint-statement-veget-state_en.html.
- Address of John Paul II to the Participants in the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State.” (Emphasis in the original.)