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FIRST-PERSON: Terri Schiavo should not be put to death

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–A young mother beams with determination as she drags her daughter’s frail body through an inflatable obstacle course. Setting the grinning child back into a junior-sized wheelchair to tie her tennis shoes, the mom explains the child was born early and has cerebral palsy. At eight, she cannot walk or talk — she just smiles.

Parents saunter together through the sand at Fort Lauderdale beach in Florida, clasping hands with their impish teenaged daughter between them while she limps along, energetically trailing one sandaled foot behind as her contorted body struggles to keep up.

A middle-aged husband and wife play together in a hotel pool in South Florida until he develops a chill. Draping a towel over his shoulders, she hands him a cane and he struggles to lift himself out of the pool. They walk arm-in-arm while he shuffles slowly towards their room.

Up and down the coast, older couples are out for a therapeutic stroll. Some are hunched over. One woman clutches her husband’s arm and marches along with a vacant look in her eyes.

In Tennessee, a little boy with Down syndrome signs the words to an inspirational song and sings along in a high voice. His parents agonize through his heart surgery — not knowing whether he will live or die.

In Iowa, a mother and father wait out the effects of a debilitating disease with their 30-something daughter, knowing it will take her at any time.

In Missouri, a pastor and his wife stop asking why their 22-year-old daughter will never grow up like other children. Instead they look for ways to help others.

It’s been years since Terri Schiavo has had the chance to feel a warm ocean breeze or bright Florida sunshine on her face.

For nearly a decade she has had limited contact with the world outside of a hospice room. She’s had no permission to be taken on a trip to shore or to absorb the masterpiece of nature with which God has so abundantly blessed Florida.

Instead, she has lain in a mostly sterile room in Pinellas Park, Fla., with orders that her parents are to be watched and she is to be let alone — to die. And because that has not happened on the schedule her husband, Michael Schiavo, apparently thought appropriate, she is again vulnerable to a merry-go-round of life and death, of starvation and dehydration.

No fun pastime, this merry-go-round. In fact, in November 2003, just after the last time she was engaged in a death ritual brought about by a court order, her mother, Mary, clutched my hand hard, and with tears in her eyes, said she didn’t know if she could bear to go through all of this again.

For the past weeks, months and, yea, even years, we have watched Mary and Bob Schindler — Terri’s father — try to take care of their eldest daughter.

The courts have said they have no interest in their daughter, however. Legally, in their place stands Michael Schiavo, her guardian. He is the man who married their daughter in 1984 and moved to Florida two years later when the Philadelphia couple decided to semi-retire in the Sunshine State. In 1990 he was left with a young wife who was severely brain-damaged after her heart stopped beating.

Regardless of the circumstances of her collapse, the court awarded custody to Michael and then continued to allow him custody after he collected the malpractice settlement, halted rehabilitation efforts, refused to file care plans for his wife and sought to have her starved to death.

Sometime during all of this turmoil, Michael went back to college to earn a degree and began to live with his “fiancé” with whom he has fathered two children.

At some point, Terri’s parents and Terri’s husband had a falling out and Terri subsequently was put in “lock down.” Only approved visitors could go into her room. No decorations were to be allowed, no pictures were to be there of the family to smile at her and offer her comfort. No more taking a spin in the hospice courtyard, her younger brother Bobby said.

Mary was told no lip gloss for her daughter’s chapped lips — Bob was reprimanded for bringing in a cell phone in order to try and have a speech therapist help Terri talk. Suzanne, Terri’s younger sister, was scared even to bring her young daughter around a place where a police officer was hired to make sure no one tried to rehabilitate or help Terri.

The rest is history.

The questions remain. Why is Terri in a hospice? Isn’t that where people go to die? Bob thinks so. In fact, he told me last month that it’s hard to watch people die all the time around Terri because she’s been relegated to such a place in spite of the fact that she isn’t dying.

Let me repeat. Terri is not dying. Unlike my brother-in-law a few years ago who died at 48 from cancer, or my great-uncle who died in December from emphysema, or my aunt who died this month from cancer — or my mentors who died last year from terminal illnesses — Terri is not dying.

To “withhold” food and water from her, knowing that nothing else is wrong with her, is active euthanasia. It’s killing her.

When does the killing stop?

Not to continue life support in a case where a patient is actively dying, cannot be considered the same as withdrawing basic food and water from a person who, because of a lack of rehabilitation and training, has not even been given a chance to learn how to swallow again on her own.

If there was a decision to be made about what is now considered “life support,” it is way past time. The decision was made long ago to assist Terri to be able to eat and drink. Should a decision to remove such assistance take place after a month, a year, 10 years? When is it long enough? Who decides when it is appropriate to not only “give up,” but to actively seek to end someone’s life, knowing the only outcome of discontinuing feeding can be death.

God is the giver of life. If He wanted Terri gone, she would be gone. Ask anyone who has ever watched his loved one die right before his eyes in spite of heroic efforts. When God deems it, she will die. But it shouldn’t be at the hands of a narcissistic culture driven by a cruel inhumanity that flagrantly disregards human life.

Cruel justice is no justice at all. Justice that is deaf and dumb to the needs of the downtrodden and the disabled is no friend of mine. Justice that refuses to recognize the place of Terri’s family in this horrible tragedy is a terrible injustice to every parent who has heeded the cries of their vulnerable offspring.

Michael Schiavo has already said through his attorney that he will begin the death ritual again Feb. 22. By the end of the week, Terri could again be at death’s door, suffering great pangs of hunger and parched -— or she could continue on a merry-go-round gone wild —- her family waiting for the courts to allow her sanctuary with them.

Whatever the outcome, we are not to fret, not to worry. We are commanded, however, to pray:

“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” [Phil. 4:6-7, HCSB].

Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness. Information about Schiavo is available online at http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/schiavo.fbw.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan