Terri Schiavo — Separating Fact From Fiction

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Some stories are fun to follow, and usually we know why. Drama, strong emotion, personal involvement, high stakes — these elements all play a part. But last year, a news story broke that contained all of these, and yet we wanted to look away.

One year ago today, Terri Schiavo died of dehydration. As she breathed her last breath, all of us, for different reasons, breathed with her. I would say it was a sigh of partial relief. Her final agony was over. And we secretly hoped our own agony would die with her, that the debate would fizzle, so we could finally look away.

You would think the verbal wrestling matches aired by competing advocates would have clarified the issue. But let’s experiment a bit. Turn to someone you do not know and ask them what they think about the Schiavo case. The conversation may go something like the one I had this morning with a woman named Jill. Well, I admit, I didn’t really have it. I made it up. But listen in anyway!


ME: Nice to meet you. My name is Father Jonathan. May I ask you a question?

JILL: Sure. My name’s Jill, by the way.

ME: I’ve been thinking about what happened a year ago today. Do you think Michael Schiavo was justified in pulling the plug?

JILL: Well, I think that’s always a very personal decision, you know. Who are we to judge? There are a lot of gray areas in these ethical issues.

ME: I know what you mean, Jill. This stuff is tough. But do you mind if I try to clarify?

JILL: You can try.

ME: I want to test you on what you just said. When an issue is very personal, does it mean the person can’t get it wrong? Does its personal or private nature give it a carte blanche for moral immunity?

JILL: No, I guess not.

ME: And avoiding being judgmental, as you properly suggest — does that mean we can never say someone’s actions are out of line?

JILL: Well, I guess it’s ok, as long as we don’t play God and judge their motives.

ME: Right on! And when we acknowledge the complexity of moral issues, that there are gray areas, as you say, does it mean that moral black and moral white, as such, don’t exist?

JILL: Well, I guess if there’s gray, there must be black and there must be white.

ME: Ok, good. I know we’ve just met, but I think we’ve come along way. Do you mind if we continue?

JILL: No problem, but I don’t have a lot of time.

ME: We’ll be quick. So without judging Michael’s motives, and admitting our ability to say some things are right and others wrong, do you think what he did in this case was justified?

JILL: Well, if I remember correctly, Terri was in a persistent vegetative state. Wasn’t she?

ME: That’s a loaded term, to say the least. Before her death, the neurosurgeons who testified before the courts were split, three to two, on that issue. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that she was. Thanks to the autopsy, we now know her brain had shriveled to half its size and she would not regain neurological functions that had been lost.

JILL: Well, given she was in such a terrible state and her brain was shriveled, I guess I wouldn’t go to extreme lengths to keep her alive.

ME: Believe it or not, I like your way of thinking. By saying “you wouldn’t go to extreme lengths,” you imply two things: first, that there would be value in keeping her alive if it could be done without using extreme measures. And second, that our right to life is based on something besides our IQ. In other words, someone with half a brain, like Terri, is not half a person.

JILL: Yeah, but Father, I wouldn’t want my husband to keep me on a respirator forever if I were terminally ill.

ME: We agree again. I wouldn’t want to be kept alive indeterminately by a big machine either, nor would I wish it on anyone. I think it would just be too much, and way out of proportion to the good it could attain. It would fit into the category of “extreme lengths” you were talking about before. But, Jill, did you know Terri was not on any big machines?

JILL: Well, she was on life-support. Wasn’t she?

ME: No, she wasn’t. She breathed on her own and her heart was active and in good shape. They simply gave her food and water through a tube, instead of her mouth.

JIll: Well, now that you remind me, I vaguely remember that, but all I could picture in those crazy months before her death was a room full of big machines trying to keep the poor woman alive. Wait, Father, just a second; something just occurred to me. What if she didn’t need a tube? Let’s just imagine they could have fed her some other way. In that case, how would they have “pulled the plug,” so to speak? There would have been no plug to pull. Would they have been justified in killing her life in some other way?

ME: Bingo! “Removing a feeding tube” almost sounds dignified, doesn’t it? But the court’s argument for “termination” of Terri’s life was not based on her needing a feeding tube. It was based on her neurological state. So, theoretically, if she had no tube to remove, they still would have approved Michael Schiavo’s wish to “let her die.” How would they have killed her? A pillow? A needle? Kind of scary, isn’t it?

JILL: That makes a lot of sense. The feeding tube just made it sound a lot nicer than what it really was.

ME: Yes, Terri’s husband and legal guardian decided not to bring her more food. Food is hardly an “extreme” or “disproportional” measure or “treatment.” And our courts, despite last-minute actions of Congress and of the president, actually gave him the right to do just that. Would they also have given him the right to use other means? I don’t think so. It just wouldn’t have looked good.

JILL: So, can you give me any other principles I can use when the issue comes up again?

ME: Maybe this will help. Aside from what I’ve already explained, I would recommend a lot of common sense. When dealing with a patient we can always choose to discontinue worthless treatment, for example, respiratory machines that are pumping for lungs with no hope for relief. Terri’s case, however, was not about considering the treatment (food and water) worthless, but actually considering her life worthless. Now that is a big difference. Don’t you think?

JILL: One final question. Could food ever be considered an “extreme measure” or “disproportional means,” in the treatment of a patient?

ME: Well, I wouldn’t recommend force-feeding grandma on her death bed, if that’s what you mean. There may be some other similar case out there, but I haven’t seen one. See how common sense goes a long way once again!

JILL: Now I have a question for you. With things this clear, why in the world would her husband have fought for her to die? Was it money, love for someone else, revenge against her parents, or was he just tired of so much care?

ME: Remember what we agreed upon? We can’t play God and judge his interior motives. We can, however, and in fact we should, say his actions were out of line.

JILL: Case closed, Father!


Is the case closed for you, the readers who were listening in? Write to me at

God bless, Father Jonathan

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