Pamela Hennessy – October 4, 2003

Terri Schiavo and the Right to Die

If anyone had told me two years ago that there was a movement afoot in this country to terminate the lives of disabled and elderly people, I would have dismissed it as conspiracy theory. Such talk has always struck me as the hysterical ravings of people who delight in the possibility that the “establishment” was out to get the little guy and the result of over-active imaginations. That was until I heard about the case of Terri Schindler-Schiavo.

For those not already familiar with Terri’s situation, hearing the facts for the first time is a wander into the surreal.

Terri Schiavo was 26 years of age when she collapsed in the home she shared with her husband, Michael Schiavo. The precise cause of her collapse is still not known though she did suffer a cardiac arrest. Due to the lack of oxygen to her brain for several minutes, Terri suffered profound brain damage and has been physically and cognitively disabled ever since. Because of her disabilities, Terri requires a gastric tube to deliver nutrition and hydration. Beyond nutritional assistance, Terri has no other physical dependencies and does not require a respirator or any other machinery to keep her alive.

In 1998, her husband, Michael Schiavo, petitioned the Florida Courts to remove Terri’s g-tube and end her life by way of dehydration and starvation. Though Mr. Schiavo was awarded over a million dollars in a medical malpractice suit (money the jury awarded for Terri’s care and rehabilitation), he soon began an unstoppable campaign to end his wife’s life, claiming she was vegetative and wouldn’t have approved of receiving life-prolonging assistance. His efforts have since snowballed into a peculiar and years-long struggle to convince the courts and the public that Terri has become a “non-person” because of her profound disabilities.

For several years, Terri’s parents and siblings have fought to block Mr. Schiavo’s efforts to end her life and have sought out his removal as her guardian. The court, specifically circuit Judge George Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, has ruled against them with bewildering consistency.

While this story has claimed a great deal of attention in the media, seldom are the true problems that arise from the Terri Schiavo case brought to light. Very real tribulations that have been spawned from the “right to die” movement are carefully kept in the closet and out of sight of the general population. Because of that, a bizarre and highly hazardous movement has taken root.

Some Case History

In 2001, a young San Francisco man by the name of Robert Wendland died. Mr. Wendland suffered profound physical and cognitive disabilities following an automobile accident in 1993. Mr. Wendland died of pneumonia while his mother continued to fight his wife’s efforts to end his life via the removal of his feeding tube.

Some stunning and ominous parallels exist between Mr. Wendland’s case and the case of Terri Schiavo and they merit consideration. Rose Wendland, Robert’s wife, had petitioned the courts for the right to remove his feeding tube, stating that he had a “right to live without tubes and medicines”. She, like Michael Schiavo, argued that aggressive therapy was not in Robert’s interest and that his death by dehydration and starvation would be “peaceful and dignified”.

Like Terri Schiavo, Robert Wendland demonstrated convincing abilities and awareness. It is said that he was able to negotiate a wheelchair through hospital corridors on his own. Yet, Rose Wendland insisted that he be “let go,” much to the opposition of Robert’s own mother, Florence Wendland.

In startling likeness to Michael Schiavo, Rose Wendland denied her spouse therapy, kept him from public view and instructed his caregivers not to disclose any information about his condition to his own mother. Even the absence of an advanced directive bears similarity to Terri Schiavo’s case.

In the end, Robert Wendland died of pneumonia (A death some experts would later call “exit protocol”) even as his legal battle waged on.

Hitler Would be Pleased

The idea of euthanasia as a method of dealing with severely disabled people is nothing new. In 1939 and under the direction of Philip Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt, the Third Reich initiated what was known as T-4 Euthanasie Programme, an aggressive campaign to put severely disabled individuals “out of their misery”. Though this program was disguised by its participants as a merciful end to “lives unworthy of life,” many important experts and historians believe it to be a precursor to the atrocities of the Holocaust and Hitler’s “Final Solution”.

In a report compiled by Germany’s Federal Archive, researchers report that “Nazi Germany used hundreds of hospitals and clinics to kill at least 200,000 handicapped, mentally ill and other institutional patients who were deemed physically inferior.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the program was a kind of training ground for the Nazi regime to "fine tune" its "technology of death" before the Holocaust.

Today, most people may find it difficult to believe that such atrocities could ever take place in modern society. However, the “slippery slope” from euthanasia and assisted suicide to legalized murder would appear to be well under way. With disabled, vulnerable and elderly patients at risk of forced death, state and federal authorities are mysteriously disinterested in providing adequate protection.

Death Merchants Fight Dirty

The right to die movement has grown quietly and over the course of many years. It has not only served to change public perception of dying, it has caused state and federal lawmakers to dismiss the rights to life and recovery for many disabled people. Since 1980, the Hemlock Society has promoted itself as an organization devoted to the concept of “death with dignity”. Recently renamed “End-of-Life Choices,” this group has given momentum to a number of bills and laws that enable forced exits to occur more frequently. Their aim to “Provide civil and criminal immunity to physician, pharmacist, and people who are present to assist the patient (in committing suicide)” can easily be viewed by some as immunity for homicide. The language used in support of such an agenda has greatly affected public perception as it relates to death and has colored the disabled and elderly among us as “burdens”.

George Felos (the attorney representing Michael Schiavo) has recited this doctrine as a method of gaining public acceptance for terminating the life of Terri Schiavo. He has publicly called supporters of Ms. Schiavo “right-wing fanatics” and “religious” in possible attempts to align these concerned people with those who would bomb women’s clinics. The press seems eager to pick up on his inflammatory language. St Petersburg Times columnist, Mary Jo Melone, has echoed his sentiments by labeling Terri’s supporters as “crusaders” and people with “a political agenda”. The use of such language can be easily assessed as a means to discredit people who reject the notion that starvation and dehydration are “death with dignity”.

Melone also published commentary from Dr. Robert Walker of Tampa, Florida. Dr. Walker, an internist, was quoted as saying "I don't think it is widely appreciated just how damaged her brain is”, Melone failed to disclose to her readers that Dr. Walker had never met nor examined Terri. She also neglected to reveal that his fields of interests include DNR orders, euthanasia and medical futility. Such glaring omission, though legal, is misleading to readers.

Even when the Governor of the State of Florida, Jeb Bush, asked that an independent Guardian ad Litem be assigned to Ms. Schiavo (as is Florida law in such cases) so that her best interests could be served, Ms. Melone dismissed his legitimate concern as “waving a pro-life banner”.

Further to their cause, those in favor of terminating Ms. Schiavo’s life use such inaccurate terms as “coma” and “persistent vegetative state” in order to negatively influence the public’s opinion of her condition. Indeed, ending her life is a much easier pill to swallow if she can be thought of as a “useless eater”.

Why is This Happening?

The right to die movement has become a fashionable mission. Organizations, such as the Hemlock Society, market themselves on a set of principles that lead their followers to believe them compassionate. In reality, however, the end result of such campaigns may lead some patients to view their own demises as compulsory instead of voluntary. Indeed, elderly, disabled and vulnerable patients of the world seem to be considered by society as “burdens” on the system. Some families have reported feeling pressured into signing Do Not Resuscitate orders when a loved one has become incapacitated or is facing an uncertain outcome. Instead of allowing terminally ill patients to die on their own terms, some members of the medical community and the media have embraced the idea of pursuing the deaths of patients who may never regain productivity equal to their ideal.

Patients cost money. Medicine and proper shelter cost money. Therapy and rehabilitation cost money and the outcomes are never guaranteed. Conversely, allowing a patient to die of an infection or hurrying the process by way of terminal sedation can be attractively economical in the case of the disabled or cognitively impaired.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, a Nobel nominee in medicine, Dr. William Hammesfahr, offered to treat her and provide her rehabilitation without charge. This stunning offer was not enough to keep Circuit Judge George Greer of Clearwater from issuing Terri’s death order on three occasions.

With a blood family willing to care for her, an acclaimed physician willing to treat her and a veritable army of supporters willing to provide companionship and financial assistance, Terri Schiavo is still seen as an inconvenience and not as a life worthy of life. The right to die movement and its bedfellow, who would have you believe it’s better to be dead than disabled, need her to die.

With Terri Schiavo’s death comes a new precedent, making it far easier to terminate the life of the non-terminal patient. Because of profound cognitive disabilities, Terri is viewed as a non-person, an empty shell and a waste of food and water to some laypeople. This is just as those pursuing her death would have you think. When she is gone, similar cases will be that much easier to win.

Irrespective of the individual’s opinion of the Terri Schiavo case and its cast of characters, this story should read as a clear warning of the dangers awaiting our most vulnerable citizens. The ultimate question is – Where will it end?