Court-ordered Euthanasia
by Jodie Gilmore
April 4, 2005 edition

The New American

Euthanasia advocates claim it is not a crime to kill as long as the victims cannot speak for themselves.

Michael Schiavo married his wife, Terri, "until death do us part." Unfortunately, Michael wants to hurry that moment along. Normally, there would be outrage, not to mention criminal charges, against a husband who wanted to kill his wife. But because Terri has been brain-damaged since 1990, Michael's efforts have attracted euthanasia proponents who claim Terri's disablement entitles her to a mercy killing though it is debatable how merciful it would be to remove her feeding tube so that she dies of starvation and dehydration over a period of about two weeks.

The resulting Florida court battle over what Terri's father calls "judicial homicide" has been bitter and a woman's life hangs in the balance. Michael and his lawyers claim that Terri is in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) and that she told Michael she would not want to live in such a state. Terri's family, on the other hand, claims that Terri is a "purposefully interactive, alert, curious, lovely young woman."

PVS Irrelevant

But while much of the public debate centers around whether Terri is indeed in a PVS or some other form of disabled condition, the real issue has been largely swept under the rug by the mainstream media. And that is that, PVS or not, Terri is a living human being; as such she is entitled to live her life to its natural end.

Terri is not "brain dead," as headlines and news stories describe her. In fact, 14 independent medical professionals (six of them neurologists) have given either statements or testimony that Terri is not in a persistent vegetative state. Her family foundation website notes that she "responds to stimuli, tries to communicate verbally, follows limited commands, laughs or cries in interaction with loved ones, physically distances herself from irritating or painful stimulation, and watches loved ones as they move around her. None of these behaviors are simple reflexes and are, instead, voluntary and cognitive. Though Terri has limitations, she does interact purposely with her environment."

Terri is not on life-support systems, such as a respirator, which could be construed as "over-zealous" treatment, disproportionate to the expected outcome. She does have a gastric feeding tube, which is connected only at meal times. But the existence of a feeding tube does not magically metamorphose Terri from a human to a "houseplant," which is what Michael's lawyer and euthanasia advocate, George Felos, compared her to.

Bobby Schindler, Jr., Terri's brother, has been fighting to save his sister's life for many years. "I never realized how insidious these death groups are," said Bobby, relating how, prior to his sister's crisis, he considered abortion the main issue on the pro-death agenda. Now he sees euthanasia as an equal threat to our country. One of the main ways the pro-euthanasia groups promote their agenda, said Schindler, is by presenting their victims as non-persons.

According to a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, a British pro-life group, "The persistent vegetative state is increasingly referred to simply as the vegetative state. The use of vegetative in these expressions is gravely misleading since it suggests that a person in such a condition has somehow ceased to be human." (Emphasis in original.)

Diagnosis of PVS Prone to Error

It is useful to examine the definition of PVS because it shows that the definition permits multiple interpretations of its meaning. According to HDI's Brain Injury Glossary, PVS is "A long-standing condition in which the patient utters no words and does not follow commands or make any response that is meaningful." But what constitutes long-standing? What if responses aren't noticed? What is meaningful? Recent events and research point to the impossibility of answering these questions.

For example, consider Sarah Scantlin. Although not specifically diagnosed as in a PVS, Scantlin has spent 20 years in a nursing home after being struck by a drunk driver. She could blink her eyes, but no one was sure if she understood the questions she was asked to blink an answer to (one blink = no, two blinks = yes). Then, after 20 years of silence, Scantlin began talking during a rehabilitative therapy session in January. Her doctor, Bradley Scheel, believes "critical pathways in the brain may have regenerated." In bioethicist terms, she has been decidedly "biologically tenacious" just like Terri Schiavo. Now that she can carry on a conversation with family and friends, it is doubtful that, if she had a husband, he would get away with starving her to death. But if euthanasia advocates had their way, Scantlin would never have had the chance to tell her parents "I love you" this past Valentine's Day she would have been long since dead.

The February 8 issue of Neurology published a study that measured the brain activity of patients in a "minimally conscious state" (MCS). The study showed that severely brain-damaged patients, although they can't follow simple instructions or even communicate, may retain at least some "cognitive function." According to a New York Times article, Dr. Joseph Fins, who is chief of the medical ethics division of the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, cited research indicating that nearly a third of persons diagnosed with PVS were really "minimally conscious."

Some physicians and husbands want to arbitrarily decide how "conscious" some people are, and then decide that if they aren't conscious enough, they don't deserve to live. But it is not man's place to make such decisions. Dr. D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, an international Christian broadcast outreach, has described Terri's plight as being "sentenced to an excruciatingly painful death by dehydration." "All one has to do is view the videos on the Schiavo web site,, to see that she is not in a comatose or vegetative condition," Dr. Kennedy notes. "But even if she were, that would not legitimize her court-ordered execution."

Dr. Kennedy explained what takes place when food and water are withdrawn:

Beyond hunger pangs, the skin, lips, and tongue crack. The nose bleeds, as mucous membranes dry out. Vomiting follows, as the stomach lining dries out. Blood pressure drops, the heart rate rises, and physical extremities become cold, as circulation is redirected to internal organs to maintain their function.

The Slippery Slope

According to Bobby Schindler, pro-life groups call Terri's legal battle the "Roe v. Wade of euthanasia." Experts on the legality and ethics of euthanasia agree. According to Pete Vere, a canon lawyer in Ontario, Canada, who specializes in the rights of the mentally and cognitively disabled: "Not only is the state sanctioning involuntary euthanasia, but this sets an awful precedent in which society judges an individual by his or her perceived utility."

Even if Terri really did tell her husband she wouldn't want to live in a disabled state, the immorality of euthanasia, and the dangers of trying to quantify "quality of life" remain assisted suicide and euthanasia are two edges of the same glittering sword of death. Some people think that the "slippery slope" argument against euthanasia that is, that once murder is legalized, it will be used against people who don't want to be euthanized is overstating the situation.

In Chapter 25 of their book, Why Can't We Love Them Both? (a book about life issues such as abortion and euthanasia), Dr. and Mrs. J.C. Willke point to the very real dangers of legalized euthanasia. It is instructive, they report, to look at what happened in Nazi Germany in the '30s and '40s. Long before Hitler used gas chambers to purge Germany of Jews and other "defective" races, German physicians were using gas chambers to kill "defective" Germans mental patients, handicapped children, even "bed wetters, children with misshapen ears, and those with learning disabilities." "When you take the giant step of placing a price tag on human life," write the Willkes, "you have made a fatal move, for price tags can be marked down."

In 2001, Holland legalized euthanasia. One study in Holland showed that approximately 15 percent of the annual deaths in Holland result from a doctor directly or indirectly killing a patient and as many as half had not ask to be killed despite legal requirements in Holland that to be euthanized legally, a patient must make repeated requests to die, have uncontrollable pain, have witnesses, and have two doctors who agree. According to the Willkes, Holland judges have approved euthanasia for a depressed person who was physically well, newborn infants who are judged to have too poor a quality of life, and depressed teenagers. The Willke publication cites a study by H.W. Hilhorst's (sponsored by Utrecht University and the Royal Dutch Academy of Science) that found "involuntary active euthanasia was being practiced in eight [Dutch] hospitals."

Hold Back the Tide

In January, Steve Crampton, an attorney with the American Family Association (AFA) Center for Law & Policy, said: "Instead of [providing] any kind of guarantee of the right to life, as our Declaration of Independence assures us, our society has turned the foundations of American law on their head, and here we have a court effectively ordering the termination of life the death, the post-birth abortion, if you will, of an innocent woman."

Dr. Richard Neubauer, medical director of the Ocean Hyperbaric Neurologic Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, filed an affidavit rendering his medical opinion that Terri Schiavo was neither "brain dead" nor in a "persistent vegetative state." "In my opinion," Dr. Neubauer stated, "to forego treatment of [Terri] and deny her nutrition and hydration amounts to murder." Dr. Neubauer, who has predicted that Terri could improve given proper hyperbaric therapy, has successfully treated brain-injured patients. One of his patients, Amber Satterwhite, was a brittle diabetic who lapsed into a coma at age 14. Assisted by the loving care of her parents and treatments from Dr. Neubauer, Amber, now 20, is unofficially helping out at her church's nursery.

People of faith who recognize God as the Supreme Being see the horror of euthanasia. For example, the AFA was founded by a United Methodist minister. Jewish physician Daniel Eisenberg, M.D., has pointed out that "the Torah does not sanction euthanasia in any situation. To remove the feeding tube from a patient whose only impairment is cognitive is simply murder." Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has stated that "No one can be the arbiter of life except God himself." He has also warned: "If Mr. Schiavo succeeds legally in causing the death of his wife, this not only would be tragic in itself, but would be a grave step toward the legal approval of euthanasia in the United States."

Legalized euthanasia is a certain recipe for moral disaster. The Schiavo case is not just a battle over one woman's life. It is a battle between the powers of death and the Power of Life.

As this article goes to press, Terri's life is scheduled by the Florida court system to be ended by starvation and dehydration on March 18, although Representative Dave Weldon, M.D. (R-Fla.) has introduced a bill into Congress that would give the Schindler family access to a federal court to argue for the life of their daughter, based on the writ of habeas corpus.