When Terri Schiavo collapsed in 1990, causes unknown, she could have had no idea that 13 years later people the world over would know her name and care very much about whether she lived or died. Yet what began as a private tragedy--a vivacious young woman stricken in the very prime of her life with a brain injury that left her profoundly disabled--has become a story heard round the world. (see No Mercy in Florida)
In case you are one of the few people who still do not know about the controversy, Terri's husband Michael requested--and received from Judge George Greer of the 6th Circuit Court in Clearwater, Florida--the right to dehydrate Terri to death by removing her feeding tube. This despite open and notorious financial and personal conflicts of interest and acts taken in disregard of Terri's welfare that should have caused Michael to be removed as her guardian. These conflicts include his engagement to a woman with whom he has one baby with another on the way and his refusal to allow efforts at rehabilitation that might allow her to eat without the feeding tube--all despite promises to a medical malpractice jury that he would attempt to rehabilitate her. Instead, once the jury award was received, Michael refused all rehabilitation, forcing Terri to simply lie in a bed for 10 years.
Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have fought for their daughter's life tenaciously, spending virtually every dime they have. But over five years, the courts, one-by-one-by-one, turned their backs. And despite testimony by credible medical experts that Terri might still relearn to eat by mouth, Judge Greer refused to even allow her that opportunity. Terri's feeding tube was pulled, per Judge Greer's order, on October 15, 2003.
In most cases, that would have been that. But the Schiavo case is no normal case. While the story was virtually ignored by the mainstream media--perhaps because the case illustrates vividly the dangers of the so-called "right to die"--talk radio once again rose to the fore and generated a firestorm of opposition to the dehydration. Led by nationally syndicated radio host Glenn Beck, and including other conservative and Christian talk radio hosts such as Janet Parshall, Sean Hannity, Jane Chastain, and Janet Folger, and promoted vigorously by the nation's politically liberal disability rights community as well as by numerous Catholic bloggers, a grass-roots movement in the last few months has produced tens of thousands of emails, phone calls, and letters to Governor Jeb Bush's office begging him to intervene to save Terri's life.
Bush was clearly moved by Terri's plight. He wanted to do the right thing but hesitated, doubting he had the legal authority to order Terri's food and water restored. First, he wrote a letter to Judge Greer asking him to reconsider and appoint a guardian ad litem for Terri. But there had already been a guardian ad litem appointed in this case who had recommended that Terri not be dehydrated. Judge Greer ignored the recommendation, and now Terri no longer has a guardian ad litem. True to form, Greer also ignored the governor.
Then, when Schindler attorney Patricia Anderson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking an injunction against the court order, Governor Bush filed an amicus brief in support of the Schindlers' request. There is "a critical distinction between removing life support and the deliberate killing of a human being by starvation and dehydration," Bush asserted. The first is protected by Florida's right to privacy, he advised the court. But, he stated, "the removal of the feeding tube without first determining by medically accepted means whether the plaintiff can ingest food and water on her own, with or without rehabilitative therapy, constitutes the deprivation of her life without due process of law." This was a remarkable event: a governor asking a federal court to overturn a state judge's ruling, for which Bush deserves great appreciation.
When that suit failed, thousands continued to pressure Governor Bush, demanding that he intervene. Bush demurred, claiming he had no legal authority. But now, six days into the dehydration, a breakthrough has arrived for those desperately striving to save Terri's life. The Florida Legislature is in special session, and at the urging of Governor Bush and the speaker of the Florida House Johnnie Byrd, "Terri's Bill" has been added to the agenda to give Bush the power to issue an executive order suspending dehydrations that are contested by families for fifteen days. The idea is to permit the legislature to take the time to sort this whole dehydration business out.
Late Monday night, the House passed Terri's Bill. The Senate passed it yesterday, and Gov. Jeb Bush quickly issued an executive order restoring Terri's food and water.
Will Terri live or die? That can't be known. But this much is clear: The Schiavo case has changed everything. Our government leaders have been put on notice that tremendous numbers of people in this country are determined to halt the erosion of the sanctity/equality of life ethic in the practice of medicine. The routine practice of dehydrating the cognitively disabled who need a feeding tube -- which occurs to the conscious and unconscious alike in all 50 states -- is going to receive a badly needed review. The bioethics movement, which has been leading us down this treacherous slope, can no longer expect to pontificate from on high in medical matters of life and death and expect the people to just meekly go along.
In a sense, the Schiavo case is a miracle. Because so many people around the country and the world have come to love her, root for her, and yes, pray for her, our country has been given a rare opportunity to look at where we are heading as a culture and reinvigorate a simple moral maxim: When in doubt, choose life.
Wesley Smith is the author of "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Euthanasia." Read this article on the Frontpage Magazine website.