Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

Big Issues in the Terri Schiavo Case


The Terri Schiavo case is disturbing on many fronts. No doubt questions have been raised in our own minds regarding euthanasia, state authority in such matters, the right to die, what constitutes extraordinary life-saving means, assisted suicide, and so much more. Questions abound regarding the Schiavo case specifically including the circumstances concerning her initial collapse, whether or not she is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), her genuine wishes in the matter, the motives of her husband, his actions over the past fifteen years, and her parents' battle to save her. Much has been written in connection with this highly visible human drama being played out in the courts, in the political arena, in the media, and in our hearts. Yet, I simply feel obligated to mention some of the big issues with which Christians must wrestle in light of Terri's impending death. Those issues include the conflicting actions of Michael Schiavo, the continued advance of judicial tyranny, the needed attention to ethical questions, the abject absurdity of American protest, and the loving affirmation of evangelical truth.


Prior to noting the important issues raised in the Schiavo case, a little background is warranted. It was 1990 when Terri Schiavo collapsed in her home and her brain was deprived of oxygen for approximately eight minutes. According to Diana Lynne, Terri's husband Michael maintains that a potassium imbalance associated with bulimia induced cardiac arrest. On the other hand, Terri's parents, the Schindlers, have suggested that he tried to strangle her based on suspicious findings related to bone fractures and court testimony offered by a neurologist that Terri had suffered a neck injury on the night of her collapse.


Though brain-damaged, Terri breathes on her own, maintains a heart beat and blood pressure, can track moving objects, responds to commands, apparently communicates in a number of ways including saying a few words, and can move her limbs. While she does need a feeding tube to survive, nurses have testified that she has swallowed ice chips and Jell-O. Neurologist William Hammesfahr testified that Terri shows cognitive function and would benefit from vasodilatation. He commented, "I spent about ten hours across about three months [examining Terri] and the woman is very aware of her surroundings. She's very aware. She's alert. She's not in a coma. She's not in PVS. With proper therapy, she will have a tremendous improvement. I think personally, that she'll be able to walk, eventually, and she will be able to use at least one of her arms." There are thirty-three sworn affidavits from medical experts maintaining that Terri is not in PVS. We now turn to the issues.


First, there is the issue of Michael Schiavo's conflicting actions. In 1992, during a malpractice suit brought against Terri's doctors, Michael pled for an opportunity to take care of his wife at home for the rest of her life. He asked for $20 million to cover the cost of her future care over the next anticipated fifty years. He told the jury he was studying nursing in order to take care of his wife.


When asked about how he felt about being married to Terri in light of her condition, he replied, "I feel wonderful. She's my life and I wouldn't trade her for the world. I believe in my wedding vows…I believe in the vows I took with my wife, through sickness, in health, for richer or poor. I married my wife because I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I'm going to do that." Of course, he is now living with another woman and has two children by her. He refuses to divorce Terri however.


According to Bob Schindler, less than eight months after his testimony of love and commitment, Michael tried to stop Terri's medication for an infection and subsequently put a "Do not resuscitate" order in her chart. Schindler claims she would have died had the nursing home not intervened. At that time, Michael made no mention of Terri's wish to die. He now claims she had made casual statements that she would not want to live in the kind of condition in which she now finds herself. He filed a petition in 1998 to disconnect Terri's feeding tube in order to carry out her supposed wishes.


In contrast, Diane Meyer, a girlfriend of Terri's, recalled a conversation she had with Terri after watching a movie about Karen Ann Quinlan. She claims that Terri did not agree with the decision of her parents to remove their daughter from her respirator even though she was in a coma. She felt that no one could know what Quinlan would want and maintained that "where there's life, there's hope."


Over one million dollars was awarded in the malpractice suit. Much of that money was to be utilized for Terri's care. According to the Schindlers, that money has been used for litigation in an attempt to put Terri to death. None of the money has been used to reduce her pain, enhance her ability to swallow, or facilitate the recovery of any basic abilities. In a petition regarding abuse and neglect by Michael Schiavo, the complaints include that he has not allowed therapy or rehabilitation since 1992 and that he has prevented swallowing tests and related therapy since 1993. He has prohibited the cleaning of her teeth since 1995 which resulted in removal of five teeth last year. He ordered doctors not to treat Terri when she had life threatening infections in 1993 and 1995. He placed Terri in hospice in 2000, despite the fact she is not terminally ill and he refuses to allow her to leave her room. She has not been outside and has had an unrepaired wheelchair since 2000. Her shades are drawn at all times. Schiavo refuses to allow Terri to practice her Catholic faith in denying her the mass. He has removed family pictures from Terri's room, denied flowers from family and friends, denied certain CDs to be played for Terri, and has prohibited her from listening to music with headphones. He has released no medical information to her parents since 1993 despite a court order requiring him to do so. Schiavo has limited Terri's visitor list and maintains strict approval rights. He removed the Schindlers from the list a total of eight months between 2001 and 2004. He has denied all requests for Terri to attend nursing home functions and refuses to allow therapeutic animals to visit with her, despite the fact that she is an animal lover.


Here's the question: are we to believe that this man made a vow to his wife that he would not let her suffer in this condition? Are we to believe that he is being faithful to that vow over these many years in the face of such opposition when he can't even keep his marriage vow? Remember, he publicly avowed he would keep his marriage vow while in the midst of a law-suit. His commitment to that vow went away when the law-suit went away. His words might not ring as hollow if he had not vowed another fifty years to Terri and then subsequently took up with another woman. In light of the controversy and multiple actions Michael has perpetrated against Terri over the last fifteen years, can we not simply say the man is evil? Must we make a ruling in the case of Terri based upon his word? We are disappointed in Judge Greer among others.


Second, there is the continued advance of judicial tyranny. Pinellas County Circuit Judge George Greer is getting mixed reviews these days. According to Associated Press, it was Greer who first ruled that Terri Schiavo was in a PVS and would not want to be kept alive. He ordered her feeding tube removed on three different occasions. He stood up to congressional efforts to intervene in the case and has consistently refused to listen to new testimony, here new arguments, or review recent evidence. 


Stetson University Law Professor Michael Allen asserted, "there are very few people who have shown the will to stand up to raw power. He's one...This is simply a case of people not liking this decision, and the fact that a judge is standing up to this is quite important." Most recently, Greer rejected arguments on Saturday that Terri attempted to say "I want to live" prior to the removal of her feeding tube on March 18. Several witnesses confirm the Schindler's claim including medical personnel. Yet, Greer has garnered acclaim in legal circles for his handling of the case over the last seven years.


Not all regard Greer as one to be acclaimed in this matter. While having the reputation of being a conservative Christian, a Republican, and a man of easy manner, protesters now show up at his home, he has received death threats, and one man is suspected for placing a $50,000 bounty on his head. No Christian could condone or rejoice in such things. Yet, in a bold move, and perhaps rightly motivated, his pastor suggested it would be better if he left his church (Southern Baptist). Calvary Baptist Pastor William Rice wrote to Greer, "You must know that in all likelihood it is this case which will define your career and this case that you will remember in the waning days of life. I hope you can find a way to side with the angels and become an answer to the prayers of thousands."


What about Governor Jeb Bush? According to WorldNetDaily, all legal remedies have been exhausted. Yet, D. James Kennedy is urging Bush to disobey a judge's order barring him from intervening to save Terri's life. Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries, maintains that Bush is the only legal authority who can save her. He declared that Bush "must act and he must act immediately on her behalf…He must disregard the order of Judge Greer." "He has both the authority and the duty to do so under the state constitution."


Greer has rejected Bush's request to grant him protective custody. He did the same to the Department of Children & Families. Kennedy commended Bush for his efforts in promoting "Terri’s Law," but also noted that those efforts are fruitless at this point. "Neither the state legislature nor the courts, state or federal, have been willing to act on behalf of this helpless woman who is now within hours of death." He also points to the Florida constitution which says that "natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law, and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life." Further, "no person shall be deprived of any right [including the right to enjoy life] because of…physical disability." Kennedy also said that "Jeb Bush has the 'supreme executive power,' and the constitutional duty, stated in Article IV, Section 1, to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." He is sworn to uphold the constitution and safeguard the constitutional guarantees of individuals' rights. Kennedy stated, "the governor may not disregard that obligation even if a member of the judiciary has ordered otherwise. He is not bound by a court order that is at odds with a constitutional guarantee."


He also cited Thomas Jefferson, who said, "to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy." "Governor Bush has tried patiently to work with the courts and the legislature but to no avail," Kennedy said. "Now, at the very last moment, he has a constitutional duty to protect Terri Schiavo's inalienable right... to enjoy and defend life.'" "Jeb Bush must choose between the clear mandate of Florida's constitution and a judiciary which, in this case, has acted in defiance of that state supreme law."


Former Judicial Watch chairman Larry Klayman and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes brought forth similar arguments. According to Klayman, since Bush "is the supreme executive power of the state of Florida, he has the right and duty to step in and, in effect, pardon Terri Schiavo from the death sentence that has been unduly placed upon her by the court system."


Here is the question: how far will we allow activist judges to take us? Do we condone the state execution of this poor woman? Whose next if we do? What about Jeb Bush? We love to point out the faults of the democrats. But what of the republicans? In our current system, they are little better. Big government is getting bigger. The rights of the citizens are being trampled to death. The governor of Florida plays politics with "Terri’s Law" but refuses to step up to the plate in the real battle. We're disappointed in you too Jeb.


[Part Two Tomorrow]


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