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Schiavo dies of starvation in Fla. hospice, SBC leader calls it a ‘sad day for America’

Updated April 1, 2005

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (BP)–Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old disabled woman at the center of a nationwide life-and-death debate, died March 31 in her Florida hospice — nearly two weeks after her feeding tube was pulled.

Her case captured the nation’s attention in recent weeks, as Congress and President Bush intervened in an attempt to save her life. But in the end, Schiavo’s parents failed to convince federal courts to re-insert her feeding tube. It was pulled March 18 following a court order, and she died on her 13th full day without food or water.

Schiavo’s death by starvation and dehydration brought together both sides of the ideological spectrum. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of the nation’s foremost pro-lifers, visited with her parents, as did civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, a former Democratic presidential candidate who has clashed with religious conservatives on multiple issues.

The case even brought together Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, both of whom supported a bill that sought to keep her alive.

The debate over Schiavo’s death likely will not end soon. Congress is expected to debate what can be done to assist families in similar situations. The bill might cover all cases where the patient’s end-of-life wishes are in dispute.

President Bush said March 31 that he and First Lady Laura Bush extend their condolences to Schiavo’s family.

“I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected — especially those who live at the mercy of others,” Bush said. “The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life.”

Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Schiavo’s parents showed “what it means to be loving, compassionate parents.”

“[A]merica should be hanging its head in shame because of its complicity in the horrible death of Terri Schiavo, a woman’s whose body committed no crime,” Welch told Baptist Press. “No matter what the laws of our land may say concerning euthanasia, and no matter that America slouches toward a culture of selfishness even in death, God is the ultimate authority over life and death.”

Schiavo suffered brain damage in 1990 when she collapsed in her home. For years, her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, battled her parents in the courts over whether she would have wanted to live. While Michael Schiavo asserted that she would have wanted to die, no written request existed. Her parents wanted to take care of Schiavo, and argued that Michael Schiavo was not fit to be her guardian since he lived with his girlfriend and had fathered two children by her. Doctors were divided over whether Schiavo was in a Persistent Vegetative State, although the Florida court-appointed doctor said she was.

Florida Judge George Greer ordered that Schiavo’s feeding tube be removed March 18, but in an extraordinary act Congress passed and President Bush signed a bill in the early hours of March 21 that was intended to give Schiavo’s parents a “de novo” review in federal court — that is, an avenue to have a new judge consider the facts from the beginning, with new evidence and new witnesses involved. Such a review would have required that the feeding tube be re-inserted. But the federal courts rejected such a review, leading to Schiavo’s death.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called Schiavo’s passing a “sad day for America.”

“It’s a particularly sad day for anyone who is physically or mentally handicapped, or seriously and debilitatingly ill, and those who love them,” Land said. “The judiciary at the state and federal level condemned Terri Schiavo to death by dehydration and malnutrition on the hearsay evidence of a husband who is cohabiting with another woman whom he introduces as his fiancé and with whom he has produced two children.

“This was done in spite of the heart-wrenching pleas of Terri’s parents, who have loved and nurtured her throughout her life and have repeatedly volunteered to take over responsibility for her care. It’s really hard for millions of American parents to accept the fact that the judicial system in the United States of America has told a mom and a dad they cannot feed their child.”

Ken Connor, one of the legal advisers to the Schindler family, said the case of Terri Schiavo revealed much about America. Connor, chairman of the Center for a Just Society, also represented Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the Schiavo matter.

“Our society abandoned Terri Schiavo and I believe that we will all suffer as a consequence,” he told BP. “As the poet John Donne said, ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’ We are all diminished by Terri’s death and all bear responsibility for what has happened to her.

“The character of any culture is judged by the way we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. It’s not judged by how we treat kings, princes and presidents or the rich and powerful; it’s easy to honor those. Our Lord personally identified Himself with the weak and the downtrodden. That’s why He said, ‘Inasmuch as you’ve done it to the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto Me.’”

Florida Gov. Bush said Schiavo’s life was a “tragic journey” but that she is now “at rest.”

“Many across our state and around the world are deeply grieved by the way Terri died,” Bush said in a statement. “I feel that grief very sharply as well. I remain convinced, however, that Terri’s death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us.

“I still firmly believe that human life is a gift and a mystery, and that its mystery is most evident at its beginning and ending. May all of us whose hearts were moved during the life of Terri Schiavo grow in wisdom at its ending.”

Welch said that he and “millions of other Southern Baptists care deeply” for the Schindler family and are praying for them.

Land said he hopes Schiavo’s death will serve as a turning point in the pro-life battle nationwide.

“I pray that this terrible tragedy will be a wakeup call for the American people to stand up and insist on the reassertion of the sanctity-of-life ethic upon which this nation was based in the Declaration of Independence, which holds that all human beings have the unalienable right to life because they are human beings — born, unborn, healthy, unhealthy, young, old, handicapped or incurably ill,” he said. “When we reject the sanctity ethic for the so-called quality-of-life ethic, in which we begin to assert some human beings have what the Nazis called ‘lives unworthy of life,’ we have taken a giant step down a steep and slippery slope to a dark and dangerous place for anyone who is not born, wanted, young, powerful, productive and healthy.

“I urge everyone to pray for Terri’s family, particularly her heart-broken parents, and to pray that God will send a spiritual awakening to America, which is the only real antidote to the toxic poison of the culture of death.”

William E. Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., said that “an innocent woman” had died. Greer, the Florida judge, was a member of Calvary Baptist before resigning his membership.

“She was starved to death while the courts that are supposed to protect the most basic liberties of its citizens stood by and did nothing,” Rice said in a statement to the Florida Baptist Witness. “It is a sad day for America and a sad day for people who love righteousness. What happened here was wrong and 10 thousand judges standing arm and arm from Clearwater to Washington screaming that this is right will never make it so. It was wrong.”

Greer withdrew his membership from Calvary recently after Rice sent him a letter in response to Greer’s admission in a March 6 St. Petersburg Times article that he stopped attending the church in the fall of 2003. Greer’s lack of attendance was in reaction to editorials in the Florida Baptist Witness that criticized his rulings in the Schiavo case.

Burke Balch, director of the National Right to Life Committee’s Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics, said in a statement, “We are deeply saddened by Terri’s death and extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Schindler family. Terri Schiavo’s death is a gross injustice and it marks a sad day in our history when our society allows Terri and others like her who have severe disabilities to be discarded in such a cruel and inhumane manner.

“We must redouble our efforts to protect those with disabilities. We will continue working to ensure that they are not dismissed by some ‘quality of life’ standard which dictates that some lives are less worthy than others.”

Balch said National Right to Life is promoting a pro-life living will called the “Will to Live” for those who wish to make sure they are not put to death by starvation and dehydration. “It is important to recognize that many standard living will forms are written to reject food and fluids, not to insist on them and we encourage people to consider signing a pro-life living will,” Balch said.

The Will to Live forms, along with instructions on how to complete them, are available for each state at www.nrlc.org.

Schiavo’s death brought reaction from many pro-family leaders. Among them:

— Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention:

“Some have spoken of ‘judicial activism’ or the ‘imperial judiciary.’ Either way, the judicial system in America is seriously broken and out of control,” Patterson said. “Nothing is sacred.”

— R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.:

“Are we now ready to declare the severely disabled and minimally conscious to be unworthy of life? Will we sacrifice the dignity of human life on the altar of personal autonomy and preference? Will we accept a redefinition of human life in terms of quality rather than sanctity? Will we trust the courts to make these decisions? Right now we should determine that we will work toward a culture of life that respects every single human life. We must work for changes in the law that would prevent this assault upon human dignity from happening again.”

— James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family:

“Every Florida and federal judge who failed to act to spare this precious woman from the torment she was forced to endure is guilty not only of judicial malfeasance — but of the cold-blooded, cold-hearted extermination of an innocent human life,” Dobson said in a statement. “Terri Schiavo has been executed under the guise of law and ‘mercy,’ for being guilty of nothing more than the inability to speak for herself.”

— Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council:

“We often hear of the Culture of Life we are fighting to protect, yet rarely do we talk about the Culture of Death,” Perkins said in a statement. “It is a Culture of Death that allows a man such as Peter Singer, who advocates infanticide and euthanasia of people with disabilities, to hold the position of professor at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. It is the society we live in where self proclaimed ‘Doctor of Death,’ Jack Kevorkian, is a folk hero to ‘right-to-die’ advocates who are successfully pushing legislation in the states. Michael Schiavo’s own attorney, George Felos, travels the country asking for fees up to $15,000 to talk of the supposed ‘right-to-die,’ profiting directly from Terri’s plight. … The Culture of Death is very much alive, but in the end it will not prevail.”

— Alan Sears, president of the legal group Alliance Defense Fund:

“Innocent Terri Schiavo, whose only ‘crime’ was to survive 15 years after her collapse was starved to death today like an animal,” Sears said in a statement. “The ACLU rhetoric is confusing here, since they wouldn’t support this type of cruel and inhumane treatment for any death row inmate or even the lowliest animal. But this young woman endured a merciless death with the blessings of black-robed magistrates who once again demonstrated the disconnect between law and justice in our nation’s legal system.”

— Mathew Staver, president of the legal group Liberty Counsel:

“Terri’s life must not end in tragedy,” Staver said in a statement. “She clung to life for 14 days without food and water. Her life struggle should be the catalyst for legislative reform. Terri Schiavo should make us all more sensitive and eager to protect human life from birth to natural death.”

— Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the legal group American Center for Law and Justice:

“It was clear from all who were involved in her case that Terri wanted to live and it is extremely disappointing that the legal and legislative efforts made in the past two weeks did not succeed,” Sekulow said in a statement. “This is an extremely difficult time for Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, and our prayers are with them and their family at this time.”
With reporting by Tom Strode, Art Toalston, James A. Smith & Gregory Tomlin.

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