The Life Legal Defense Foundation provided Terri Schiavo’s earliest defense, long before her plight was acknowledged by the media. Despite our best efforts—and the subsequent efforts of some of the nation’s brightest attorneys—we were not able to save Terri’s life.
March 31, 2016 marks the 11th anniversary of the murder of Terri Schiavo. I cannot call it anything but murder, as this was the intentional killing of another human being with malice aforethought.
Even after more than a decade has passed, it remains difficult to write about Terri’s death. I still cannot fathom how a healthy woman who, although she could not speak, was responsive and alert, could be summarily put to death for no reason other than the selfish whim and pecuniary gain of a man who long before forfeited the right to be called her husband. When children suffer harm because of their parents’ neglect, the state steps in to protect the children, even terminating the right to the title and privileges of parenthood if necessary.
Yet in Terri’s case, Michael Schiavo’s years of neglect of his wife—confining her to bed, withdrawing beneficial therapy, and finally subjecting her to a cruel and tortuous death by starvation and dehydration—were accomplished with the full complicity of the law. Our law. Our so-called justice system.
As I write this, I am reminded of a quote from Pastor Martin Niemöller’s 1946 speech to the Confessing Church in Germany. He experienced firsthand the consequences of a regime that sought out the infirm, the handicapped, the allegedly “expendable,” religious minorities, and finally anyone who opposed their insistence on a state populated only by the Übermensch—strong, beautiful, “ideal” human specimens.
“Then they eliminated the sick, the so-called incurables. I remember a conversation with a man who professed to be a Christian. He was of the opinion that maybe this was the right thing to do. ‘These incurable people just cost the state money. They are only a burden to themselves and to others. Is it not best for all involved to remove them?’ Only then did the church as such consider the plight of these people. Then we raised our voices until we were again publicly silenced. Can we say that we are not responsible?”
In the few months I have served with the Life Legal Defense Foundation thus far, I have witnessed the encroachment of the Übermensch mentality in our culture. Hospital ethics committees rationalize their complicity in the deaths of the weak under “futility of care” theory, but it is, in essence, the same phenomenon. Those who lack the requisite quality of life are routinely denied treatment—even such basics as food and water—thus ensuring their death.
It is commonly assumed that anyone who lacks the capacity to communicate would not want to live in that weakened condition. Numerous states not only permit, but encourage, the terminally ill to take their lives before their care becomes too costly or burdensome.
I once asked an attorney who represents a large health care system what standard he used to determine quality of life. He could not provide an answer. In that case, the fact that an elderly woman was bedridden and unable to speak for herself was sufficient to withhold life-sustaining treatment. The treatment was readily available, yet the hospital deemed it futile and the woman died shortly thereafter.
I echo Pastor Niemöller’s question: Can we say that we are not responsible?
What have we done in the eleven years since Terri Schiavo’s death to ensure the protection of the weak and vulnerable among us? Or do we secretly think it best that society purge itself of its more burdensome members in order to preserve valuable resources for the productive?
We cannot afford to ignore these questions. Neutrality is no longer an option. Each of us, our friends, and our families are only one illness, one accident, one misstep away from being deemed expendable. We must raise our voices—individually and collectively and in whatever arena we find ourselves—to speak out for the vulnerable or we too will find ourselves silenced, perhaps permanently.