Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Remembering Terri Schiavo

Five years ago today Terri Schindler Schiavo died from court-mandated starvation and dehydration after nearly two weeks without food or water. Terri was a severely brain-damaged (but healthy, needing only food and water through a feeding tube to survive) Florida woman whose estranged husband wanted her dead, against the fervent wishes of her loving family.

Let me make two points about this travesty. First, it reflected a "quality of life" ethic that had gained traction, and continues to gain traction, in our culture: human beings are not valuable in themselves, but only by virtue of functional abilities and characteristics (which are gained and lost) that our society deems necessary for a "meaningful" life.

It's the same thinking that largely undergirds the killing of unborn human beings by abortion and embryonic humans in laboratory experiments. These vulnerable human beings fail to meet our arbitrary criteria for moral respect, and may therefore be killed for our convenience or benefit. Abortion, euthanasia and embryo-destructive research are all direct assaults on the principle of human dignity and equality.

Second, the euthanasia death of Terri took the form of denying nutrition and hydration, a practice that is now fairly common. It is not the same as withholding artificial treatment and allowing a natural death. Terri was not dying; she was perfectly healthy, and would have lived many more years. Depriving her of ordinary food and water, which are not medical treatment but basic sustenance that all of us need in order to live, was a form of intentional killing by omission (non-voluntary, passive euthanasia).

On this five-year anniversary, Bobby Schindler, Terri's brother, reflects: "I wish I could say things have changed for the better since my sister's death or that people with cognitive disabilities are now better protected in response to the horror she had to endure. ... Tragically, however, it seems the rights of the brain-injured, elderly and others are still being violated."

Read the rest of Bobby's column, and learn about the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation, which works to protect the rights of disabled persons.