Editor’s note: The following commentary is excerpted from the introduction by Diana Lynne to her powerful, comprehensive book on Terri Schiavo’s life and death, entitled “Terri’s Story: The Court-Ordered Death of an American Woman.” This latest WND Books release is now available at WorldNetDaily’s online store.
It’s Sept. 12, 2001, all over again for many Americans. As they did on the day after the infamous 9-11, when hate-filled terrorists blasted a whole in the nation’s soul, shocked citizens across the country now similarly grapple with a seismic shift in their understanding of what life in America means. The disbelief and denial that lingers months after the slow death by dehydration of 41-year-old Terri Schiavo over the course of 13 days harkens back to the post-9-11 pall that hung over the country. It’s prompted by the same realization that the self-serving agenda of a group of ideologues could threaten the welfare of every citizen in the country, and the awareness that the law, law enforcement officers, judges, and politicians – including the President of the United States – proved powerless to block them.
On March 31, 2005, a brain-injured woman who was not terminally ill died as a result of a caregiver’s removal of her life-sustaining feeding tube and the accompanying refusal to provide her with oral hydration and sustenance. Her husband believes she would have wanted to die; she would have wanted to be helped along toward what he perceived to be a merciful, dignified end. Although lawmakers, who passed new legislation to facilitate deaths like Terri’s, and the death-with-dignity lobbyists who helped craft the legislation deny the removal of feeding tubes to cause the deaths of people who are not terminally ill amounts to assisted suicide, those who are intellectually honest see such denial as an act in ethical “hair splitting,” in the words of one prominent death-with-dignity advocate. Another expert characterizes a patient’s refusal of nutrition and hydration as “voluntary passive euthanasia.”
Terri Schiavo was not the first person to be dehydrated to death as the result of the removal of a gastric feeding tube. Anecdotal evidence relayed by right-to-die proponents suggests thousands across America die in this manner daily and “tens of thousands of other Floridians” forged the trail before her. What creates discomfort for many, and horror for others, is the fact that the medical personnel who withdrew the device from the incapacitated woman’s stomach and then neglected to provide her with so much as an ice chip over the near two weeks it took for her to succumb to dehydration were carrying out court orders, not an advance directive from Terri Schiavo.
The woman had no written instructions regarding the medical care and treatment she would want, or not want, in the event of incapacitation. She never appointed a health-care proxy to make such decisions for her. The determination of whether the woman should live or die fell into the hands of a probate judge who ruled from the bench without the benefit of a jury. He sided with the husband and favored death.
What if the husband was mistaken? Or worse, what if he lied as some fear? What if Terri Schiavo didn’t want to die? Pinellas-Pasco County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jon Thogmartin called it a “miracle” Terri survived over an hour without a measurable blood pressure after her heart mysteriously stopped beating Feb. 25, 1990, and before paramedics succeeded in resuscitating her. The lack of oxygen and poor, or no, blood flow to her brain during those frantic minutes caused massive, “irreversible” brain damage. Thogmartin finds it remarkable she lived 15 years after this event, and even more remarkable she endured “marked dehydration” over 13 days before her heart beat its last. He called it a “testament” to her strong heart. Others call it a testament to her will to live. If Terri, in fact, wanted to live, then her death becomes a killing. Without the benefit of her explicit, written directive on the matter many would argue it is impossible to know beyond a shadow of a doubt which characterization fits her death – assisted suicide or killing.
After Terri Schiavo became incapacitated at the age of 26, the probate court appointed her husband as her plenary guardian, giving him full control over her fate. Years after winning $2.25 million from medical malpractice lawsuits filed on behalf of Terri – money he testified in court he needed in order to be able to take care of her for the rest of his life – Michael Schiavo recalled his wife had casually commented a couple of times that she didn’t want to be kept alive by artificial means and didn’t want to be a “burden on anyone.” At the time of her alleged casual statements, feeding tubes were not considered life support in Florida. They are not machines. It’s likely Terri Schiavo didn’t even know what a gastric feeding tube was until one was surgically inserted into her abdomen, and then it is disputed whether she had the cognition to be aware of the silicone tube attached to her body.
Terri Schiavo was raised in a close-knit, family – so close her parents and brother moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., after she and her husband relocated from Pennsylvania, where they both grew up. The Schindlers called the alleged statements about end-of-life care recalled by the Schiavos as completely “out of character” for Terri and don’t believe she made them. They maintain that, as a life-long, practicing Catholic, Terri believed in the sanctity of life.
With the family members in dispute over Terri’s wishes, Pinellas-Pasco County Circuit Court Judge George Greer was called in as referee. Ruling in favor of guardian-husband Michael Schiavo, he ordered the removal of the feeding tube and further ordered she not be given any food or water orally. While it was debated among family members, lawyers, lobbyists, lawmakers, bioethicists and news commentators as to whether Terri Schiavo would have wanted to live for the past 15 years in her brain-injured state, it is indisputable she never asked to not be fed. She never declared a desire to be dehydrated to death.
Many who perceive Terri’s death as tragic complained in its wake of suffering symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which include tension, anxiety, recurring nightmares, depression and feeling powerless, numb, disconnected and vulnerable. Psychologist Karin Huffer identifies such suffering as a result of protracted litigation perceived to be abusive as Legal Abuse Syndrome. Judicial-reform activists warn the now-discretionary nature of the civil court system more and more often leaves those who come in contact with it “shell shocked.”
In contrast, many other Americans don’t recognize the ramifications or the national significance of the Terri Schiavo story. They’re comforted to know the law will be on their side if and when they decide they’re better off dead, and choose to take steps to end their lives. Just as some erroneously conclude there could never be another 9-11 on American soil, or that terrorists will never target their back yard in the future, many dispassionately dismiss Terri Schiavo’s fatal dehydration as “her wishes” or as a “private family matter.” Although it may have started out as a “private family matter” 15 years ago when the young woman mysteriously collapsed at home without any prior warning of serious illness, it became a public-interest matter when it entered the arena of the courts.
The case of Terri Schiavo shortly became emblematic of a guardianship system overdo for reform. For decades, guardianship advocates have clamored for changes to a paradigm in which guardians acquire dictatorial control over their wards, and overburdened courts are loath to upset the apple cart and curb their power. In a familial tug-of-war over the life of an incapacitated loved one, the court-appointed guardian has the upper hand and, in the court’s eyes, can do no wrong. It’s a system ripe for abuse and neglect and one in which countless incidents of both have been documented.
By 1996, the Terri Schiavo case morphed into a Roe v. Wade, of sorts, of “assisted dying” when an attorney promoted as “America’s foremost expert on the right-to-die,” with ties to the death-with-dignity advocacy organization Choice in Dying, took the stage to assist Michael Schiavo in persuading the court to order the removal of his wife’s feeding tube to put an end to the “forced feeding.” Attorney George Felos, who admits to having a “fascination with death and dying” and who considers death to be a “profound mystical process” – but who does not advocate illegal activity, particularly euthanasia – took a page from the playbook of abortion proponents in the 1973 watershed court case and argued that ending Terri’s life was necessary to protect her constitutional right to privacy.
Felos successfully made the same argument in a prior right-to-die case, resulting in the Florida Supreme Court ruling in 1990 that Estelle Browning, an elderly stroke victim, had a constitutional right to cease food and water according to her wishes as outlined in her written advance directive. But unlike Browning, Terri had no written advance directive and, at the age of 34, she was nowhere close to dying. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy of her body estimated she could have lived another decade.
In the Schiavo case, Felos had help in making legal history. In 1999, fellow board members at the politically connected Hospice of the Florida Suncoast and colleagues elsewhere within the hospice industry teamed up with prominent death-with-dignity advocates aligned with the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society and ushered in the changes to Florida law. Like its former chairman of the board, Felos, this hospice also had ties to Choice in Dying, which reorganized as Partnership for Caring and later merged with Last Acts to become Last Acts Partnership. The revisions to the law, which became effective Oct. 1, 1999, enabled Felos less than four months later to state in his opening arguments in the first trial, In re Guardianship of Schiavo, the “removal of artificial provision of sustenance as medical treatment … is the law in Florida.”
At that point, the right-to-die case flashed across the radar screens of pro-life organizations such as Life Legal Defense Foundation, the Alliance Defense Fund, The Christian Defense Coalition, National Right To Life Committee and the American Catholic Lawyers Association, which entered the fray in various ways to bolster the efforts of Terri’s parents and siblings to keep her from becoming a “sacrificial lamb on the stage of the right-to-die movement.”
In 2003, Guardianship of Schiavo caught the attention of state legislators and Gov. Jeb Bush who were barraged with an estimated 165,000 e-mails on the matter. Their unprecedented actions woke up a slumbering national, mainstream media, which, with prompting from Felos, spun the case as a “private family matter” invaded by self-serving politicians pandering to “fundamentalist right-wing” constituents. The American Civil Liberties Union signed onto the case with Felos to protect the right to privacy of this young woman who was helpless to defend herself from the invasive, “over-treatment” of patients perceived to be alarmingly present in our high-tech health care centers across the country. The reportedly pervasive “over-treatment” problem was cited as the cause of the country’s Medicare crisis.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, once Congress and President George W. Bush stepped into the controversy in March 2005, political pundits and the media cast the Terri Schiavo case as the latest battlefront in the new-millennium War between the States – red states versus blue states. In the words of St. Petersburg Times columnist Mary Jo Melone, Terri’s life was “confiscated by agendas of strangers.” Even if Michael Schiavo would have realized in a quiet moment by himself over the last decade during which he sought to end her life that he was mistaken about Terri’s wishes, the pro-death train had already left the station.
While the political debate about Terri took on a life of its own, the relatively healthy, non-terminal woman laid dehydrating to death in the small hospice room she had reportedly not been allowed out of in five years. Five of her teeth had rotted in her mouth and were extracted. One of her toes was amputated due to a persistent pressure sore that developed into a bone infection. Her body was riddled with contractures because she had not been given rehabilitative physical therapy to keep her muscles loose in more than a decade, according to her medical records.
Although dozens of physicians and caregivers gave sworn testimony that Terri Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state but exhibited cognitive awareness and purposefully interacted with her parents, siblings and others, the testimony of three doctors – one of whom, Dr. Ronald Cranford, is a right-to-die activist who routinely serves as an expert witness in favor of death in right-to-die cases, and who calls himself “Dr. Humane Death” – carried the day in the trial court. The three neurologists led by Cranford concluded Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, or PVS, and there were no treatments that could restore her cognitive function enough to significantly improve her quality of life so that she would want to remain alive.
“There are fates worse than death,” Felos eloquently argued, in reference to Terri’s condition. Many Americans agree with this pronouncement and feel it applied to Terri Schiavo without ever having met her, including Judge Greer who adjudicated her case for seven years. As is customary in the American judicial system, appellate court judges presumed the trial judge properly adjudicated the case and didn’t abuse his authority, and affirmed his ruling that Terri was in PVS and wanted to die.
As WND reported Tuesday, even the autopsy failed to settle the debate over the exact nature of Terri Schiavo’s medical condition and her level of awareness. Interestingly, if Terri Schiavo was in PVS, she beat odds estimated to be between 1 in 15,000 and 1 in 75,000 by surviving her condition for more than 15 years, according to statistics provided by the Multi-Society Task Force on PVS, the leading authority on the matter.
What no one – not even the Schindlers – dispute is that the woman suffered severe brain damage. However, the Schindlers are unable to make the leap to the conclusion that follows in many minds: Terri needed to die.
“Because her brain damage was at a certain level, it gives us justification for killing her, starving her to death?” Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler, asked rhetorically in an interview with WND.
Indeed, the court’s death order chilled many in the disabled community, who consider it “dangerous.” Some 26 national disability rights organizations, led by Not Dead Yet, pleaded for the country to return to its senses.
“‘Incompetence’ and chronic disability have become the targets for a new eugenics movement that essentially aims to remove most protections for this population that were previously guaranteed by law, tradition, religion or common decency,” wrote disability advocate Thomas Nerney. “It is now considered an act of ‘kindness’ to relieve someone with a significant disability of his or her very life.” The disability-rights community sees a deep, societal bias against persons with disabilities as the real Terri Schiavo story. To them, her death represents the ultimate expression of widespread discrimination experienced by the disabled in America.
Death of a disabled person by the removal of food and water is actually an old story, dating back to the prominent 1983 court case of Elizabeth Bouvia. After suffering a miscarriage and the dissolution of her marriage, the then-25-year-old woman with cerebral palsy checked into a hospital in the Los Angeles area and demanded to be dehydrated and starved to death while sustained by comfort care and morphine. Some of the cast of characters involved in promoting Terri Schiavo’s death similarly fought for Bouvia’s assisted suicide, including Cranford, bioethicists who filed an amicus brief in both cases, the ACLU and the Hemlock Society.
Elizabeth Bouvia helped the right-to-die movement plant the seed of “better dead than disabled” in American minds. But after the courts rebuffed her planned assisted suicide, the movement realized it would take a multi-pronged, public education initiative to harvest that seed. A decade-long, $200 million campaign to improve palliative care and promote end-of-life choice, primarily funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and billionaire George Soros’ Project on Death in America, was rolled out in the 1990s and then declared no longer necessary by the end of 2003. Terri Schiavo’s death came a short 16 months later.
“America has been sold a bill of goods,” declares former Schindler family attorney Pat Anderson. “In a society that values youth and beauty and the surface over the inner soul, this is the logical outcome. If you’re not pretty anymore, if you’re not young anymore, you just need to die. You need to move on over.”
Former Florida gubernatorial candidate and Jeb Bush attorney Ken Connor believes the Terri Schiavo case, the outcome of which he calls “judicial homicide,” holds staggering implications: “I think every human being has … a stake in this,” Connor said during a Tampa Bay area radio interview hosted by talk journalist John Sipos last year. “You don’t have to be a man or woman of faith to worry about the morality of taking the life of an innocent person. The right to life is the foundation of all other rights. It’s that right without which no other right can exist.”
In summary, the Terri Schiavo case is more than the sum of all of its permutations – right-to-die, pro-life, disability rights. It is, at its core, a human-rights issue. Who decides who lives and who dies and under what circumstances? In re Guardianship of Schiavo sets legal precedent that a probate judge, without even the added input of a jury, is now an authorized arbiter of innocent life and death. Indeed, America is not the same since Terri Schiavo’s death.
WorldNetDaily has been reporting on the Terri Schiavo story since 2002 – far longer than most other national news organizations – and exposing the many troubling, scandalous, and possibly criminal, aspects of the case that rarely surfaced in news reports. Just released from WND Books, the definitive book on the Terri Schiavo saga, titled “Terri’s Story: The Court-Ordered Death of an American Woman.” Author Diana Lynne tells a powerful, insightful, and ultimately heartbreaking story. This eye-opening book provides the background and depth missing in most of the national news coverage of the pitched battle over the life of Terri Schiavo.
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