Natural Law

Remembering Terri Schiavo

Terri Schiavo with her mother Mary Schindler in 2001. (Handout via Reuters)
Nearly 15 years later, the debate about ending patients’ lives still rages.

The pro-life movement opposes state-sanctioned interventions that permit the killing of innocent human beings precisely because they permit the killing of innocent human beings. The slippery-slope argument — the opposition to state overreach generally — is a secondary point.

I was reminded of this by the passing of the anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo.

In 1990, at the age of 26, Theresa Marie (a.k.a. Terri) Schiavo suffered a cardiac arrest at home, during which her brain was starved of oxygen and endured permanent damage. Though her family wanted to care for her, her husband, Michael, wanted her to die. What ensued was a hugely controversial legal battle that landed on the U.S. president’s desk and that of the Supreme Court. In the end Michael got his wish. And on March 31, 2005, after 13 days without food or water, Terri Schiavo died.

If anything, debates about whether, when, and how it is appropriate to end a patient’s life — and about the role that the state should playing in facilitating this — have intensified since then.

Readers of National Review will no doubt be familiar with two high-profile cases in the United Kingdom where the parents of infants with bleak prognoses fought to keep them alive. Alfie Evans, a toddler with a degenerative brain condition, had his life support turned off against his parents’ wishes last year. And in 2017 the parents of Charlie Gard, a boy with a similar condition, were prohibited from taking their child to the U.S. for experimental and, they hoped, potentially life-extending treatment.

However, neither of the above cases was related to the first pro-life principle: respecting innocent human life from its natural beginning to its natural end. They were, rather, about the secondary point: whether the state should be able to expropriate parental rights. I think the state should not in such cases (though intervening to save the child’s life against parents’ wishes, as in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions, is a different matter). And I believe that these parents ought to have had the right, as Charlie’s mother put it, to “leave no stone unturned.”

Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction to be made between depriving someone of the extraordinary means of survival and depriving someone of the ordinary means of survival. Unlike the two boys, Terri was not terminally ill. She had a brain injury. Unlike the two boys, Terri was not being kept alive by artificial “life support” machines but by the same means that each of us is kept alive: food and water.

Whereas the doctors worked tirelessly to save Alfie and Charlie, in 1992, two years after her collapse, Michael Schiavo ordered that all rehabilitation and therapy for Terri be stopped. Armed guards prevented her family from even putting lip balm on her lips as her withered body was dehydrating to death.

Was Terri in a “persistent vegetative state,” as some suggested? It is unclear exactly what this means and how it was to be applied to Terri. Approximately 40 medical affidavits submitted to the Florida courts said that she was not. Her family also said that she was not.

In any case, the term “vegetative state” is easily misapplied to refer more broadly to a “quality of life” argument. This is brought sharply into focus by a Family Guy sketch mocking Terri’s condition. The accompanying song included the lyrics “Terri Schiavo is kinda aliv-o” and called her “the most expensive plant you’ll ever see.”

I was first shown the clip by Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler, at a pro-life conference in England. It immediately shattered any illusion I had that the argument for killing Terri could be considered compassionate. Rather, it was unspeakably cruel and callous. To think that her family had to see this after everything they’d been through is sickening.

As Pope John Paul II explained, “a man, even 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.’”

Again, “pro-life” doesn’t mean keeping people alive no matter what. It means respecting innocent life, which has innate dignity, from its natural beginning to its natural end.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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