A Cautious Man
March 22, 2005
Further Random Thoughts On A Tragic Situation
Some more really random thoughts about the terrible tragedy in Florida. There's just no way that you or I, or anyone, can really know what the Schiavo and Schindler families are going through, or why this situation has come to this. I know that some commentators (mostly conservative, you can look it up) believe that character assasination is the best strategy in this situation. That's just wrong. As of this morning, the Federal judge hearing the request for injunctive relief, to continue the provision of nutrition to Ms. Schiavo, has rejected that request (despite the arguments of the Schindlers' attorney that the judge would be forcing Ms. Schiavo to commit a mortal sin by refusing treatment, but more on that in a moment).

By the way, before I go on, let me say that I'm not convinced that having a "living will" would have solved this situation. Look at what some of the politicians are saying, in echoing arguments made by some members of Ms. Schiavo's family:
Like other Republican lawmakers championing Schiavo's bill, DeLay often suggests she is alert and potentially treatable.

"She talks and she laughs and she expresses likes and discomforts," he said Sunday evening. "It won't take a miracle to help Terri Schiavo. It will only take the medical care and therapy that patients require."
If they are arguing that Ms. Schiavo's condition is not permanent, then a "living will" would be useless - despite the fact that Congressman DeLay, or Senator Frist, are not basing these claims on any objective medical evidence.

Now, back to the part about mortal sin. As soon as I heard the report, about the argument made by the Schindlers' attorney, that really bothered me and I tried to gather my thoughts to say something. Fortunately, Ed Deluzain at Iron Knee has already taken care of that, better than I could:
The lawyer representing Terri Shiavo's parents tried to bring religious issues into the hearing today about whether Judge James Whittemore should grant a temporary restraining order to allow Terri's feeding tube to be reinserted until they can have a full-dress federal trial on the matter. Here's the exchange:
During the hearing, David Gibbs, a lawyer for the parents, said that forcing Terri Schiavo to die by starvation and dehydration would be "a mortal sin" under her Roman Catholic beliefs.

"It is a complete violation to her rights and to her religious liberty, to force her in a position of refusing nutrition," Gibbs told Whittemore.

But the judge told Gibbs that he still wasn't completely sold on the argument.
David Gibbs tried to make this sound like Terri Shiavo would be committing a mortal sin if she is deprived of nutrition and hydration. If Gibbs knows anything about Catholic theology, and I suspect he does, he knows this is a bald faced lie. In her permanent vegetative state, Terri Shiavo is totally incapable of committing sin, mortal or otherwise. Gibbs makes it sound like Terri is being forced to sin, but that's absurd according to my understanding of Catholic teaching on the subject.


Gibbs's reference to mortal sin is wrong-headed, and it's just another example of the radical right wing's propensity to twist the truth. What he said was an obvious grandstand appeal, and fortunately Judge Whittemore was smart enough not to be swayed. I won't resort to gutter language on this blog, but don't think for a minute I'm not capable of using it "in real life" to describe these people, or that I don't do so regularly.
Yes, I really liked Mr. Deluzain's last comment. I suggest you read the whole thing, and his other thoughts on this case.

Now, I understand that there is a range of opinions among thoughtful Catholics, about end-of-life decisions to forego nutrition and hydration. But, the position put forward by the Schindlers' attorney is too extreme, and therefore wrong. An example of a more thoughtful approach is that expressed in 2003 by the Bishop of St. Petersburg, which is the diocese in which Ms. Schiavo and her family live. In considering this matter, he comes down on the side of continuing to provide nutrition, given the uncerainties of the case. However, he makes it clear that a "living will" that addresses nutrition is not contrary to Catholic teaching. As always, I suggest that you read the whole thing, but some important points are the following:
Some in Terri’s family believe that her condition calls for the removal of her feeding tube and others do not. Even physicians, who have evaluated Terri’s condition, with varying degrees of access for clinical analysis, disagree on her condition. In Florida, when families cannot agree, trial judges are permitted to act as proxies and make decisions about life-prolonging procedures. In so doing, we ask our judges to make decisions that they might not make for themselves or their loved ones, but ones that clear and convincing evidence shows the individual would make for herself or himself.

Proper care of our lives requires that we seek necessary medical care from others but we are not required to use every possible remedy in every circumstance. We are obliged to preserve our own lives, and help others preserve theirs, by use of means that have a reasonable hope of sustaining life without imposing unreasonable burdens on those we seek to help, that is, on the patient and his or her family and community. In general, we are only required to use ordinary means that do not involve an excessive burden, for others or for our ourselves. What may be too difficult for some may not be for others.


Terri Schiavo’s case is especially difficult because her actual medical situation is in dispute. The court has determined based on the medical evidence which was presented to it that she is in a “persistent or permanent vegetative state,” commonly referred to as PVS. Her husband agrees with this. Her parents and other family members do not. Physicians who have examined her also have opposing opinions. It is currently assumed that Terri cannot swallow food naturally. All agree, however, that there is extensive and permanent damage to her brain but it is not clear whether the medically assisted nutrition and hydration is delaying her dying process to no avail, is unreasonably burdensome for her, and contrary to what she would wish if she could tell us.
As a result, the Bishop had a three-part suggestion:
This situation is tragic. I strongly recommend that
1. in the presence of so much uncertainty and dispute about her actual physical state, all parties pursue a clearer understanding of her actual physical condition;

2. Terri’s family be allowed to attempt a medical protocol which they feel would improve her condition;

3. Excessive rhetoric like the use of “murder” or the designation of the trial judge or appellate judges as “murderers” not be used by anyone from our Judeo-Christian tradition. This is a much harder case than those who use facile language might know.
In other words, determine the facts, provide treatment to help her (if such treatment exists), and knock off the name-calling (some of those policians and commentators referenced above would do well to keep that last point in mind).

Finally, the Bishop's most recent statement on this matter continues with this view - not that one choice is better or more moral than the other, but that this is a personal decision which, unfortunately, has become a legal dispute:
At the end of the day (the judicial, legislative days) the decision to remove Terri’s artificial feeding tube will be that of her husband, Michael. It is he who will give the order, not the courts or certainly the governor or legislature or the medical personnel surrounding and caring for Terri. In other words, as I have said from the beginning of this sad situation, the decision will be made within a family. A significant part of that family feels they are outside of the decision-making process and they are in great pain and suffering mightily.

I urge and pray that before the finality, one last effort be made for mediation. Normally, at the end of life, families of the person in extremis agree that it is time to allow the Lord to call a loved one to Himself, feeling that they have done all they possibly might to provide alternatives to death, every possible treatment protocol which might be helpful has been attempted. There is a peace. This will not happen in this instance because of the seeming intractability of both sides. I beg and pray that both sides might step back a little and allow some mediation in these final hours. The legacy of Terri’s situation should not be that of those who love her the most, loathing the actions of one another, but of a heroic moment of concern for the feelings of each other, guided by moral and ethical considerations, with a single focus of achieving the best result for Terri.
That may not serve the interests of the politicians, but who cares?



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