by Jodie Gilmore
April 4, 2005 edition
The New American
claim it is not a crime to kill as long as the victims cannot speak for themselves.
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."
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
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
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,
www.terrisfight.org, 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.