Did Terri die for the greater good?

By Diana Lynne

Terri Schiavo, 1963-2005

Terri Schiavo became a household name because of her death three years ago. While millions around the world are now familiar with the demise of the 41-year-old brain-injured Florida woman, comparatively few had heard of her before her death. Fewer still knew of Terri prior to media coverage of the life-and-death tug of war between her husband on one side and her parents and siblings on the other.

Terri Schiavo had no say in her famous death because she neither could speak for herself nor prepared a living will prior to her still-unexplained collapse in 1990 that led to her brain injury.

Michael Schiavo ultimately prevailed in the 12-year court battle. Probate Judge George Greer issued the death warrant Schiavo sought by not only ordering the removal of the feeding tube surgically attached to Terri’s stomach, but also by barring the oral administration of so much as an ice chip. Greer effectively ordered Terri to death by be dehydration and starvation for an agonizing 13 days.

Terri’s death defines her. In a way, we are all defined by our death. All of us desire to have a “good death.” What this means depends upon the worldview to which we subscribe.

For those who believe in eternal life through Christ, a “good death” would be one in which the individual is united with our Creator before being called home. The end of temporal life on Earth marks the beginning of eternity in heaven. This view acknowledges that God is all knowing and powerful, and that every human life created has intrinsic dignity that is never lost.

For those who do not believe in the hope of eternity spent with God, their focus remains the here and now, where the measure of one’s life depends on how productive or useful they are. These secular humanists consider a “good death” to be a premature, pain-free exit from an unproductive existence to preserve the individual’s dignity, which is viewed as an external quality not endowed by God. This perspective sees man as all knowing and powerful.

The Schindlers subscribe to the Christian worldview and insist Terri did as well. She practiced the Catholic faith regularly until her brain injury, and, thereafter, received sacraments to the extent that she could from priests visiting her bedside.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope,” Terri reportedly told her girlfriend in a prophetic reference to the plight of Karen Ann Quinlan eight years before she became similarly incapacitated.

In 2000, Judge Greer sided with Michael Schiavo’s assertion it was Terri’s “wish” to die based on astonishingly flimsy, hearsay “evidence” from Schiavo and his siblings. Four years into the court battle, the Schiavos suddenly remembered Terri had once told them she would rather be dead than live a life supported by artificial means.

The belated recollection of Terri’s “wish” to die came five years after Schiavo won $2 million from Terri’s former physicians so he could take care of Terri at home for the rest of her life. It also came after he sired a child with another woman to whom he became engaged, and hired a prominent right-to-die attorney for the purpose of getting a court order to end Terri’s life.

Nevertheless, Greer found the Schiavo testimony “clear and convincing,” which is the standard of evidence used in civil court, as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that used in criminal court.

Instead of a jury evaluating the testimony, Greer’s lone, subjective opinion of what constituted “clear and convincing” evidence determined Terri’s fate. In 2001 three appellate court judges rubber stamped Greer’s ruling, and Terri’s will was never re-adjudicated by any of the other 32 judges who subsequently heard various other aspects of the case.

In alleging that Terri wanted to die, Schiavo essentially claimed she held the man-centered, secular humanist worldview. His attorney, George Felos, argued Terri’s incapacitation was a “fate worse than death.”

While the Schindlers describe Terri’s death as “barbaric,” Felos uses the word “beautiful.”

Felos and his fellow right-to-die advocates and hospice industry leaders considered Schiavo v. Schindler the Roe v. Wade of hastened, assisted death – a “good death” as defined by secular humanists.

To be sure, Terri’s death was assisted and hastened. Despite residing at a hospice for more than five years, she was not terminally ill. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on her body estimated she would have lived another decade if not for having been dehydrated to death.

Three years later, it is striking how many people purport to be Christian yet supported Terri’s killing as the “humane” or “merciful” course of action. Yet, Terri was neither suffering nor dying. What’s more, dehydrating someone to death could never be construed as humane or merciful. Rev. Frank Pavone, a priest who was with Terri during her final hours and minutes, puts it simply: “No amount of brain injury ever justifies denying a person proper humane care. That includes food and water.”

Even if Terri were suffering, there is redemption in suffering according to her Catholic faith. It unites the sufferers with Christ, makes them open to receive the grace of God and can help them experience a “good death,” according to the Christian worldview.

To be sure, the Schindlers suffered, as they futilely fought Schiavo after he discontinued Terri’s physical therapy in 1993 and warehoused her in nursing homes and hospices for the next 12 years while he pursued her death.

The Catholic Church teaches that evil and suffering in the world come about because of man’s iniquities toward man. When God allows this evil and suffering to exist, He does so to accomplish a greater good.

What greater good does Terri’s death serve? Schindler attorney David Gibbs believes it sent a “clarion call” to America to “adopt the heart of God toward the ‘least of these,'” a reference to the biblical passage in the gospel of Matthew.

Put simply, Terri’s death is a call to arms for the God-fearing to fend off the death grip secular humanists have on the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

The Schindler family has dedicated itself to this cause, establishing the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation to help people with disabilities and the incapacitated avoid tragedies that reflect what Terri endured.

What can the rest of us do?

  • Urge legislators to rewrite the end-of-life laws adopted in every state in response to lobbying by the death movement that enables the killing of the disabled and elderly.
  • In lieu of an overhaul, push lawmakers to add safeguards to end-of-life statutes such as the requirements of jury trials for determining the will of those who can’t speak for themselves, and the adoption of the more rigorous standard of evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
  • Encourage everyone you know to appoint a health care proxy, and prepare a Will to Live to protect them from those in the medical community taught to usher in premature, assisted death.
  • Pray for “the least of these.” The Schindler’s foundation in collaboration with Priests for Life has declared today “Terri’s Day” for the purpose of prayer and remembrance for Terri and all disabled or otherwise vulnerable individuals. Churches have been encouraged to hold special services and Masses.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once posed the question, “Will you be spectators of the cross?” Will we be like those who stood at the foot of the cross and watched Christ’s crucifixion but whose hearts weren’t changed by it? Or will we be moved like the centurion to stand up against the iniquities of men who don’t value life?

Only God knows whether Terri Schiavo’s tragic death was a “good death,” from the Christian perspective. But whether her death brings about a greater good is up to all of us.

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