Human Exceptionalism

The Cruelty of Terri Schiavo’s Death


During the Terri Schiavo debacle, I would often debate bioethicists and others who claimed that Terri’s death would be gentle.

These advocates either intentionally or ignorantly conflated two different circumstances.

1. The first, taking food and water from someone whose body readily assimilated sustenance. That is an agonizing death.

2. The second, people dying naturally whose bodies are shutting down. In such circumstances, people stop eating and drinking on their own as part of the process of passing on.  That does not cause suffering, and indeed, it is medically inappropriate–and can be cruel–to force sustenance into their bodies.

Terri was a number 1, and the advocates pretended she was a number 2.

Now Terri’s brother frankly discusses the terrible circumstances of his sister’s slow death by dehydration. He had an artist depict what she actually looked like, embedded above. From, “I Will Never Forget the Look of Horror…”

These are the hard facts my family and I will have to live with for the rest of my life:

After almost two weeks without food or water, my sister’s lips were horribly cracked, to the point where they were blistering.

Her skin became jaundiced with areas that turned different shades of blue. Her skin became markedly dehydrated from the lack of water. Terri’s breathing became rapid and uncontrollable, as if she was outside sprinting.

Her moaning, at times, was raucous, which indicated to us the insufferable pain she was experiencing. Terri’s face became skeletal, with blood pooling in her deeply sunken eyes and her teeth protruding forward.

Even as I write this, I can never properly describe the nightmare of having to watch my sister have to die this way. What will be forever seared in my memory is the look of utter horror on my sister’s face when my family visited her just after she died.

The process Bobby describes is exactly what the late, pro-dehydration neurologist Dr. Ron Cranford testified happens to those being dehydrated in the Robert Wendland case. From my, “A Painless Death?” in the Weekly Standard quoting a court transcript:

After seven to nine days [from commencing dehydration] they begin to lose all fluids in the body, a lot of fluids in the body. And their blood pressure starts to go down.

When their blood pressure goes down, their heart rate goes up. . . . Their respiration may increase and then . . . the blood is shunted to the central part of the body from the periphery of the body. So, that usually two to three days prior to death, sometimes four days, the hands and the feet become extremely cold. They become mottled. That is you look at the hands and they have a bluish appearance.

And the mouth dries a great deal, and the eyes dry a great deal and other parts of the body become mottled. And that is because the blood is now so low in the system it’s shunted to the heart and other visceral organs and away from the periphery of the body . . .

Those who dehydrating the cognitively disabled to death: Own it!

Those who don’t want tube feeding and so state in an advance directive–your right–know what you may be getting yourself into.

The problem is that we may be far gone as a culture that many will say: “Fine. If this is such a bad death, just give them lethal jabs.”

No. Don’t kill them!

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