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FIRST-PERSON: Starving the disabled to death

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–According to a recent poll, most Floridians think it isn’t wrong to starve a disabled woman to death.

OK, that’s an exaggeration — but only a slight one.

A little more than 14 years ago, Terri Schindler Schiavo of Tampa, Fla., collapsed in her home when a potassium imbalance stopped her heart. Her oxygen-starved brain was damaged, leaving her severely handicapped. Doctors inserted a tube to provide her with food and water. Eleven years later, her husband convinced a court to remove the feeding tube, but legal wrangling and appeals kept that from happening until Oct. 15, 2003. A week later, Florida lawmakers and Gov. Jeb Bush intervened to reinsert the tube.

The poll, conducted in early April, found that 41 percent of Florida voters thought the state government was wrong to do that, and another 18 percent were uncertain — a total of 59 percent.

When a patient is in a “persistent vegetative state” — permanently and irreversibly unconscious — many people might understand how family and doctors could agree to disconnect mechanical life support. When a patient, however, simply needs to be fed, most people should readily recognize that removing a feeding tube is murder by starvation.

Add to that the fact that Schiavo, 40, is not unconscious — she is aware of those around her and capable of interacting with them in a limited way. It makes you wonder how her husband, her doctors, several judges and as many as six in 10 Floridians could be callous enough to think it’s humane to deprive her of food and water and set in motion an agonizing process of starvation that could take up to two weeks.

It seems in the minds of all these people, starving this disabled woman to death is no different than disconnecting a machine that keeps a brain-dead patient alive. Would these same people push to kill her by lethal injection, like they do on death row, or let her bleed to death from cutting a vein? I don’t think so.

So Pope John Paul II created quite a stir when he announced March 20 that removing feeding tubes is immoral and that Catholic hospitals are required to sustain the lives of patients like Schiavo who do not need mechanical life support.

Pointing out that doctors cannot predict with certainty whether such a patient will recover, the pope declared that Catholic healthcare providers are morally obligated to continue providing “basic care” such as food and water, even to patients who are neither awake nor aware. Describing such people as being in a “vegetative” state, he said, is degrading.

The fact is that Schiavo is both awake and aware, yet members of the medical and legal communities are willing to starve her to death. It’s also a fact that some patients do awaken even from deep comas. Recently a woman in Hong Kong miraculously recovered nearly two years after doctors declared her brain-dead and said she should be allowed to die.

All this, of course, raises serious questions about one person judging another’s “quality of life.” Disabled people are understandably terrified that so many — including healthcare professionals — could think that a woman who is both awake and alert should be starved to death. If family members and medical professionals feel they have the right to decide whether someone else’s life is worth living, the elderly and feeble won’t sleep very well at night.

If it is acceptable to starve a disabled person, some will decide there are more “humane” ways to end a life. If Schiavo’s disability is serious enough to warrant her death, what other physical or mental impairment might make someone else a candidate for the needle?

One of the most amazing powers of the human mind is its ability to rationalize sinful behavior. Schiavo’s husband, Michael, has a bank account containing a half-million dollars that a jury awarded her. If she dies, he gets the money and the freedom to marry his new girlfriend.

When doctors and judges agree that a patient like Terri Schindler Schiavo can be starved to death — and six out of 10 voters might agree — Christians need to engage family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers in a serious discussion about the sanctity of human life.

Otherwise, a day will come when decisions about who deserves to live will be driven by greed, prejudice and other, even more vulgar motives.
Florida Baptist Witness special report on Terri Schiavo: http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/schiavo.fbw. Mark Kelly is the author of Proof Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The end of Christian apologetics, available at http://kainospress.com.

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  • Mark Kelly