Today is the 17th anniversary of the murder of Terri Schiavo. Terri endured a 14-day, agonizing death when the court ordered that her feeding tube be removed, and forbid any hydration. Terri was not terminally ill–or even critically–ill; she was disabled due to a brain injury. Her brother, Bobby Schindler, who has dedicated his life since then to advocating for the lives of the medically vulnerable, through his organization, The Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, posts a two-week countdown of the ordeal his family endured every year.
. . . It was 1990, for those who do not remember, when Terri, at the age of 26, sustained a brain injury resulting from suspicious circumstances while home alone with her husband, Michael Schiavo. Terri’s brain injury affected her ability to swallow and therefore she needed a feeding tube to receive nourishment.
Terri did not have a medical directive, so it was Michael who became her court appointed caretaker which exclusively authorized him the fiduciary duty to make all treatment decisions in Terri’s best interest. At the time, my family did not anticipate there would be an issue with Michael being Terri’s caretaker.
However, in 1993, barely three months after a medical trust was established for Terri’s lifelong rehabilitation and therapy, Michael had a change of heart, deciding he was going to end Terri’s life. This also meant that if Michael was successful in killing Terri, he would inherit her medical trust, which at that time, was valued at close to a million dollars.
Terri Schiavo was not brain dead, nor in a “persistent vegetative state” as was overwhelmingly reported in the major media. Her injury affected her swallowing, and so she needed a feeding tube, a basic device that is not extraordinary, high-tech care. Since Terri’s case, the condition named a “persistent vegetative state” has been called into question. Charles Camosy, author of the recent, important book, Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality (reviewed by Wesley Smith in our fall, 2021 issue), wrote in 2011, less than a decade after Terri’s death:
For many of us, the concept of a ‘vegetative’ state was really brought home with the case of Terri Schiavo. But this poorly-named and poorly-conceived category of medical diagnosis has proven to be controversial far beyond that one case. Last year, for instance, a group of researchers found that several people supposedly in PVS had measurable brain activity and could even answer questions correctly by imagining certain states of affairs as ‘yes’ and others as ‘no.’
Yesterday, an article in the New York Times found more confirmation that a PVS can often be nothing of the kind:
Three severely brain-injured people thought to be in an irreversible “vegetative” state showed signs of full consciousness when tested with a relatively inexpensive and commonly used method of measuring brain waves, doctors reported Wednesday. Experts said the findings, if replicated, would change standards in treating such patients.
There were many signs that Terri, though severely disabled, was aware and able to respond to those who she loved. Sadly, this evidence was stubbornly ignored. From Schindler:
Tragically, in 1997 after two failed attempts to end Terri’s life by refusing to treat her urinary tract infections, Michael petitioned the court to remove Terri’s feeding tube and intentionally kill her by dehydration. My family immediately objected to Michael’s petition. We were confident that the court would see through Michael’s motivations. After all Michael had a live-in girlfriend, and if successful would inherit Terri’s million-dollar trust.
Michael would go on to rebuff pleas from U.S. lawmakers, the President of the United States, and the Vatican to allow my parents to care for Terri rather than kill her. Many of these leaders even suggested that Michael quietly divorce Terri so Michael could legitimize his adulterous affair by marrying the woman with whom he was cohabitating.
In January 2000, after a week-long trial in front of Pinellas County Florida Circuit Judge George W. Greer ruled in favor of Michael removing Terri’s feeding tube. Judge Greer sentenced Terri to death without even visiting her. My family had pleaded desperately for the judge to spend time with Terri so he could see for himself that what Michael testified under oath about Terri was not true.
Subsequently, on March 18th, 2005, after a five-year legal battle, Michael was successful with his premeditated plan to starve and dehydrate his wife to death. What followed was the beginning of a prolonged death lasting almost two-weeks. My family stood helpless as we witnessed Terri’s agonizingly painful and merciless demise.
One of Terri’s most fervent champions was the late, great Nat Hentoff. His book, Insisting on Life, is available to read or download here. Hentoff wrote several columns on Terri’s case, advocating for her life; some are reprinted in the book. After she died, he wrote, in “The Legacy of Terri Schiavo: The Disabled Sound the Alarm for the Non-Religuous”:
Speaking with the disabled over the years, I have been told, “It’s worth keeping in mind that you are only temporarily able. You could unexpectedly, suddenly, become one of us.” Also heeding that warning was Dick Rogers of the San Francisco Chronicle, whose March 29, 2005, column was headed: “Schiavo’s Story Is about Us All.” Pat Anderson, a former lawyer for Terri Schiavo’s parents in their daughter’s case, has resoundingly made clear why Terri Schiavo’s story is about us all: “Euthanasia in America now has a name— and a face.”
. . . The questions before us, as part of the legacy of Terri Schiavo, are the crucial definitions of “quality of life,” “futility,” and “morally justifiable” with regard to the future of the disabled, from birth on. How this debate is resolved should be of more than passing interest to those of us who are only temporarily able.
As we remember Terri Schiavo today, please consider supporting Bobby Schindler’s life-saving mission.
The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network upholds human dignity through service to the medically vulnerable.
We express this mission through public advocacy of essential qualities of human dignity—which include the right to food and water, the presumption of the will to live, due process against denial of care, protection from euthanasia as a form of medicine, and access to rehabilitative care—as well as through 24/7 Crisis Lifeline service to at-risk patients and families.