March 31, 2005
The culture gap has widened. A deep chasm divides the citizens of this country. The recent Presidential election colored the map in red and blue. The results highlighted the fundamental issues that separate even members of the same family. Values. Morals. These are the issues that continue to be played out on the national scene.
This past week, Christians mourned the death of Jesus. A death that continues in the innocents condemned to die in poverty and war. Thousands watched young people make the Passion of Jesus come alive in churches and streets of our cities. Even more watched and waited as the Passion of Jesus came to life in Terri Schiavo facing death in our courts. Her family was at odds. The nation is divided. And the media debated both sides of the issue.
Some years ago, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the term “quality of life” to the American public in a political speech. Today that term has become a measuring rod for life itself. Some argue that sickness can so deteriorate someone’s quality of life that this person would be better off dead. They judge a life seriously impaired as worthless. Function matters. Not person. Value comes from doing. Not from being.
The argument to end life on the basis of a diminished quality of life is a slippery slope that leads to the survival of the strong over the weak. A soldier loses a limb fighting for freedom. A policeman is shot and paralyzed. A child is born autistic. Who determines the quality of life necessary for life itself? The State did in Nazi Germany. And innocent people were sacrificed.
For 15 years, Terri Schiavo lived as a cognitively disabled adult. Her parents never stopped loving her. At the instigation of her estranged husband, the courts decided the quality of her life was so reduced that she should die. Why give an incompetent person the same health care of a competent person once their life is no longer useful? Is this not the underlying justification for demanding the right to die for someone who has been very much alive?
Terri Schiavo was a weak individual. The strong have prevailed. Terri Schiavo was a disabled individual. The powerful have denied her the right to live. The decision devalues the disabled. It says that those with cognitive disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism or Down syndrome, who are unable to communicate, do not measure up to the quality of life set by the intelligent, the vocal, the articulate. It says they are just not worthy of life. Here is “the mentality which tends to
equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible,
communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions, there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure”(
Evangelium Vitae, 19). Should we be shocked that a legal system that aborts the unwanted child would also abort the unwanted adult?
With the advances in medical science, the health care of the seriously ill has changed radically. A heart attack is no longer the end of life. Cancer is no longer terminal. Heart transplants. Kidney transplants. Routinely the dead are brought back to life. What was once considered miraculous is now commonplace. The extraordinary is the ordinary.
When someone is actually dying and their death is imminent, it is not immoral "to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted" (
Declaration on Euthanasia, The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 5, 1980
.) But food and hydration given to a person disabled for years is hardly the case of extraordinary means and imminent death. It is the normal care expected for a sick or disabled person. Denying food and water to anyone is simply cruel.
Terri was alive. She was not dying. Yet the courts decreed that Terri’s basic nourishment should cease. The feeding tube removed. Her life was not ebbing away under a terminal illness. Yet the courts sanctioned starving her to death. There is no moral justification for such an action. We watched helpless with her parents and in horror. Days of agony. Slow, painful death through starvation. Hardly a case of mercy killing or euthanasia. We treat convicted murderers on death row better. Even they are allowed to eat. People treat their pets more humanely. They do not starve them to death.
There is need for grave concern on the part of every thinking person. The decisions made against the life of Terri Schiavo spring from a new culture. Today “broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems.” (
Evangelium Vitae, 4)
The judges spoke. People listened. Health-care workers obeyed. Police enforced their decrees. The courts made the killing of Terri Schiavo legal. They could not make it moral. Human life comes from God. It is His gift that we must all protect. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person. In fact, the right to life from the moment of conception to natural death is first among all other rights (
Donum Vitae, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 4). The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the will of human beings nor even in the State, but in man himself and in God his Creator. Do we dare forget that all legitimate authority derives its force from the moral order that comes from God? When a legislature or court departs from the moral order, its law is no longer law. It is an act of violence (
Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 93, a.3 ad 2).
Violence has been done to one innocent person and to her family. But not to them alone. The unjust taking of the life of one person diminishes the value of every human person. Acquiescence to this crime will see the lessening of civil protection for the weak and the vulnerable. The courts have failed to uphold the moral order. They have wounded the conscience of the nation. And the wound could be fatal. Is the case of Terri Schiavo simply the end of a long struggle or the beginning of a dark chapter in our nation’s history?