Often times, a family’s love is in expressed in simple, unnoticed ways. Sometimes, however, something so unexpected occurs that causes a family to express its love in public. And one such case involves a 41-year-old brain-damaged Florida woman named Terri Schindler-Schiavo. Terri’s case has shown her family to be front-and-center in the battle for a Culture of Life, a culture that embraces life from the moment of conception to natural death. Let us examine what happened to Terri.
Terri and her siblings, Bobby and Suzanne, grew up in a four-bedroom colonial home on a half-acre in the suburbs of northeast Philadelphia. Throughout the family life there was a unity in their relationships and in the Faith.
One of the most pivotal moments in her young adult life happened during her community college years. During her second semester, she met a man who was a year older. Her family says he was the first man who ever really noticed her. Michael Schiavo was tall and handsome and had blond hair, and asked her out. Five months later, Michael proposed to her. On Nov. 10, 1984, Terri and Michael married at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. Terri was 19 years old.
Six years later, when she was 25, something terrible happened that altered Terri’s life. She collapsed at home from a heart attack that temporarily cut the oxygen off to her brain and caused severe brain damage. Weeks later, she came out of the coma, and although able to breathe on her own, she was unable to communicate or move as before.
Her parent’s love helped them see that even though Terri was disabled, she was still their daughter and still a person. This love gave them hope that she could learn to speak again if she had therapy. However, her husband Michael did not share the same view. Thus began a long court battle between her parents and her husband, who wanted to remove her feeding tube so she could die. He lacked the charity to see the person within the changed body, and he could not understand the value of a life which was “less than perfect.”
The battle for custody
Michael was declared to be Terri’s legal guardian, which gave him the power to make decisions for her. But Terri’s parents, the Schindlers, soon had a falling out with him. They wanted their daughter to have rehabilitation therapy to see how far she could come back, but Michael had refused it since 1993.
Several years later, in 1997, Michael announced his engagement to his live-in girlfriend, with whom he has two children – even though he was still married to Terri.
Also in 1997, a judge approved Michael’s request to remove her feeding tube, which supplies Terri with food and water. Michael asked for the removal, he said, because his wife had allegedly told him years earlier that she never wanted to be kept alive by artificial means. In his eyes it seemed compassionate to let her die, but true compassion would realize how horrible it would feel for the other person to be starved to death in a hospital bed, without being able to say anything about it.
The court system also ruled that Terri was in a “persistent vegetative state” even though Terri interacted with those around her. The courts ordered that the feeding tube be removed. The removal of the tube occurred three times: 2001, 2003, and finally in 2005. The two previous times the tube was reinstated, thanks to the fortitude of Terri’s parents and other people of good will who continued to fight for her life.
They had been so united in the Catholic faith that they were certain that Terri would choose life as her faith always taught her, especially her own life. Terri’s parents, sister, and brother offered to take care of her, but Michael adamantly refused to pass custody of Terri to them.
Terri’s case has raised serious questions about what happens to disabled people or those who are vulnerable. Many people are worried that this that can lead to more cases of euthanasia when people are not able to speak up for their own rights.
Questions about truth and power
Some media outlets have used a recent poll to claim that the majority of Americans have been in favor of having Terri’s feeding tube removed, but a number of people have pointed out that these numbers are not valid because some questions were misleading and deceptive. In the 2003 incident, the American public expressed sympathy by flooding various lawmakers with e-mails and phone calls to protest. The Florida Legislature stepped in to pass a law that helped save Terri’s life, but that law was later ruled unconstitutional, and the tube was once more removed.
Many question that the courts can claim that it is unconstitutional to protect someone’s right to life. They feel that the court was not upholding the state constitution, but actively claiming power to change it without the people’s consent.
Popular support for life
Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s office reported that it received more than 50,000 e-mails and more than 100,000 petitions urging him to save Terri’s life, but they were unable to stop the removal on March 18th. Bobby Schindler, Terri’s brother said his reliance on Jesus and praying the rosary have given him strength to persevere in the fight for his sister. He went to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to lobby senators and representatives around-the-clock.
Web sites sprang up overnight to spread the word and to encourage action. Rallies were held in Tallahassee (Florida state capitol) and in D.C. to focus media attention on Terri’s plight. At the rallies, young adults wore red tape covering their mouths with the word “LIFE” written on it to symbolize that Terri had no voice to defend herself from being killed.
The intense pressure of these committed and active citizens resulted in Congress passing a law that brought the case to a Federal court. It showed the power of Catholics in the political arena, and how far they can go in defending life.
In the end, the federal court system refused to order that Terri’s feeding tube to be re-inserted. Without food or water, she died on March 31, at 9:05 am. Her family was prohibited from her bedside as she passed away, but still have not given up the fight. They began the “Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation” with a vow to help others who are in similar situations, and change the system so it can protect the most vulnerable lives.
Insisting on life
Pope John Paul II has always spoken for a culture of life. Some of his words this past month addressed the Catholic Church’s position in regards to life and those who are vulnerable:
“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.”
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, stated on March 13: “The removal of the gastric feeding tube from this person, in these conditions, may be considered direct euthanasia…To prevent someone access to food and water represents a way of killing that person.”
The battle continues
The apparent lack of regard for Terri’s life by the judicial system has caused deep sadness in many Christians throughout the country and the world. But it has also made people more aware of the serious reality of the culture of death and the need to work fast to prevent such a situation from happening again.
An evil has been done, but the battle for life is not over. In the last book published by our late Pope John Paul II, Memory and Identity, he speaks about the fact that God is the Lord of history and will find a way to bring a greater good out of every evil. He reminds us that we need to do good in the face of evil, and that the drama of evil should wake us up to our vocation: overcome evil by good.
In this sense, the Pope reminds us that evil is an invitation to do good. We need to remember these recent events in order to understand who we must be: defenders of life who are ready to answer the call to action. From the blood of the first Christian martyrs, God raised up the Catholic Church. In the same way, Terri’s martyrdom in the witness for life can inspire courage and strength for those who continue the battle.
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ “Matthew 21:40
“This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”1 John 4:21
“If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” 1 John 3:18
“The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed. He also has the right to appropriate rehabilitative care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery.” (Pope John Paul II during the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas” March 2004)
“The family is indeed more than any other social reality, the place where an individual can exist ‘for himself’ through the sincere gift of self. This is why it remains a social institution that neither can nor should be replaced: it is the ‘sanctuary of life'” (The Pope’s “Letter to Families”)
“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.” (Pope John Paul II during the International Congress on “Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas” March 2004)
2208 The family should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor. There are many families who are at times incapable of providing this help. It devolves then on other persons, other families, and, in a subsidiary way, society to provide for their needs: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.
2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.
Saints and Heroes:
St. Jeanne Jugan. Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Jeane lived in France and began taking elderly people into her home in order to take care of them. Other women eventually joined her and they began a congregation of nuns who dedicate themselves to the elderly. They have helped thousands of people live their last years surrounded by love and goodness. The nuns have also helped many of these elderly people rediscover their faith and see hope for eternal life. Jeane’s motto was: “Humble in order to serve better.”
Charity (supernatural): Love for God. Love of others from God’s point of view.
Coma: A state of deep, often prolonged unconsciousness, usually the result of injury, disease, or poison, in which an individual is incapable of sensing or responding to external stimuli and internal needs.
Commitment: The state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action or to another person or persons.
Compassion: Feeling of sympathy for the distress of others, with the desire to help them
Culture of Death: Laws and the mindset in society that views the deaths of vulnerable people – such babies who are aborted – as something that is ordinary and necessary.
Culture of Life: Affirms the absolute dignity of every human life and respects that life from conception to natural death.
Euthanasia: Killing someone who is sick. It is an act on a person who is suffering which causes death with the purpose of eliminating suffering. Euthanasia can also be omitting basic, ordinary care in order to cause death.
Faith: Belief and trust in God; belief in God through the teachings of the Church
Fortitude: Inner strength that allows us to keep going in the midst of difficulties
Hope: Confidence that good will happen. Confidence that things will work out well
Love: To recognize the good and want the best for another
Perseverance: Trying hard and continuously in spite of obstacles and difficulties
Persistent Vegetative State: Florida law defines this phrase as a complete lack of awareness and a complete inability to interact.
Sympathy: A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another
Unity: Singleness or constancy of purpose or action; continuity
Discussion Question Options
- Let’s suppose we start judging which lives are “useful” and which are not “worthwhile”? Why is this dangerous? Is there any case when you would allow people the “right to die”? Or does every life have value, no matter if the person sees it or not?
- What is the basis for the value of life? In other words, what is it that gives life this intrinsic value?
- What are some ways that Pope John Paul II affirmed the culture of life (Note: This is not just his teachings about abortion and euthanasia, but his encouragement to the youth, his efforts for peaceful resolution of conflict, his kindness to enemies, etc.)? Who are some other modern-day “defenders of life”?
- How many people had heard this story before? How many tried to do something to help Terri (even just telling someone else, or saying a prayer for her)? What if that had been Christ being condemned to death on the cross? How many think that they would have reacted and tried to do something to help him?
- When you hear this story would you say that it is a sad case, an inspiration and motivation to work harder, or another battle in a war that is continuing?
Journal Writing Options
What would happen if you were in an accident and ended up in the same situation as Terri did. Would your friends have enough evidence to prove that you want to live? How strong are you in your commitment to the culture of life? Do people know it? How strong are you in letting people know what you believe in the Church’s teachings? Write at least three beliefs you have, in the culture of life or in your faith, that you want to make more evident in your life.
- Invite a speaker to the class who has experience working with disabled people (this could be a parent who has a disabled child). In particular, have the speaker focus on the gifts the person or child has to share, and the lessons they can teach about the value of life.
- As a class, come up with a list of different groups of people who may be less valued by society (may include the elderly, unwanted babies, the poor, criminals, etc.). Write this list on the board. As a class, choose one group to reach out to in particular, and make a resolution to do something nice for these people (it could be as simple as a smile to an elderly person, taking time to listen to their stories, or expressing gratitude for their years given to the community).
- Each student writes a letter to Michael Schiavo (not to send, but for an exercise), in which they try to help him understand the value of life. Remember that the point is not to accuse or condemn him, which might make the situation worse and will make him less likely to listen. The point is to let him know that there is a better way than the way he has acted in this case.
- Write a letter to Terri’s parents thanking them for their example and telling them what you will do to help in promoting love and respect for human life. (This can be sent.)