Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 25, 2005
'I was hungry and you fed me'
Terry Schiavo died, betrayed by others
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
In February 1990 a sudden loss of oxygen to the brain left Terri Schiavo in a coma and eventually in a profoundly incapacitated state. In October 2003 the court finally ruled that Terri was indeed in a persistent vegetative state, and that her feeding tube should be removed.
Under the law in Florida, where Terri's case was adjudicated, the patient's prior wishes must be demonstrated with the highest standard of legal certainty in civil cases, that is, "clear and convincing evidence." In cases where this standard of proof is not met, the court must err on "the side of life," on the assumption that most people, even those who are profoundly disabled, would choose life rather than death.
Terri left no living will, no advance directive, no formal instructions about what to do for her under such circumstances.
The court relied entirely on Michael Schiavo's recollection of a few casual conversations, on a train and watching television, in which Terri supposedly said she wouldn't want to live "if I ever have to be a burden to anybody" or be kept alive "on anything artificial."
Admittedly, this constitutes some, but hardly convincing and conclusive, evidence of her wishes.
In 1992, Michael testified at a malpractice hearing that he would care for Terri for the rest of his life, that he wouldn't "trade her for the world," that he was going to nursing school to become a better caregiver. He explicitly reaffirmed his marriage vow, "in sickness, in health."
Many have asked why it took six years for him to remember that dying was his wife's wish. Others ask whether a disaffected husband with dubious motives, now in a new relationship with children generated from this union, should be granted absolute control over his wife's fate.
Not only did the court and Michael Schiavo betray Terri, so did much of the mainstream media.
A misleading, and frequently repeated, ABC News Poll said that 63 per cent of Americans wanted Schiavo's feeding tube removed. The poll said she was "on life support," which was not true, and that she has "no consciousness," which her family and dozens of doctors disputed in sworn affidavits.
The poll said the family disagreement is whether she would have wanted to "be kept alive." But Schiavo was not dying - or wasn't while she was being fed. So the question wasn't whether she should "be kept alive" but whether to stop feeding her, in which case she would die.
By most accounts, death by starvation and dehydration is a painful, even gruesome death. We don't starve convicted criminals to death, or animals either.
While this cruelty was going on in the hospice, Michael Schiavo's lawyer, George Felos, said to one and all : "Terri is stable, peaceful, and calm, . . . she looked beautiful." His words were accepted without question by the media.
As a society, we also betrayed Terri Schiavo. We asked what she would have wanted as a competent person imagining herself in such a position, instead of what do we owe those who are not dead or dying but profoundly disabled and permanently dependent?
In the Gospel of St, Matthew, we read, "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink."
One of the most primordial human acts in caring for another person is feeding the sick and hungry. Food and water are some of the most basic human needs. All persons require food and water in order to maintain life and to regain or maintain health.
By most accounts, death by starvation and dehydration is a painful, even gruesome death.
Dignity of every person
Pope John Paul II emphasized that the provision of food and water 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."
The underlying principle is the intrinsic dignity and worth of every person. This principle mandates that we must always care for one another.
As necessary as technological, biological or physiological processes involving mechanical ingestion of food and water may be, the provision of care should never be limited to them. The act of feeding another person should be an active, not a passive, exercise in providing nutrition and hydration. We provide comfort and care for the whole person; we don't just target the disease or the body.
Hand feeding the sick, be it sitting next to an elderly blind woman raising a spoon of soup to her lips, or instructing and supporting a distraught husband as he nourishes his wife who suffers from Alzheimer's disease are virtuous acts which bring comfort, hope and healing to the whole person.
These are acts that affirm personhood and demonstrate a commitment to be present in times of suffering and anguish, in times of fear, loneliness and abandonment.
Forgive us, Terri, we betrayed you in so many ways.
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