On March 18th, the feeding tube that provided Terri Schiavo with the normal care of food and water was withdrawn. Terri has now begun to die by starvation. One can pray that her husband will have a change of heart or that the State of Florida will find new grounds to intervene so that in spite of what transpired on March 18 th a safer course might still be taken and that Terri “continue to receive nourishment, comfort and loving care” – as we Catholic Bishops of Florida have continually advocated.
As Pope John Paul II points out in his just released book, Memory and Identity, the crisis of our age is rooted in the presumption that we can decide for ourselves what is good and evil without reference to God. Yet, the Decalogue, while certainly an expression of divine positive law, is nonetheless more than a religious code: it is a reflection of natural law – of the law written on the heart of man. In other words, we cannot not know that it is wrong to kill innocent human life.
That we do nevertheless kill is evidence of the misterium iniquitatis at work in the world; but, when we do kill we usually seek by evasions and subterfuges to make up excuses for our crimes. Thus, we disguise what we do by rationalizations: we don’t abort “babies”, we remove the “products of conception”; we don’t murder unarmed civilians, we engage in “ethnic cleansing”; and when we dispatch with a fatal cocktail the feeble minded it is because such a life is lebensunwerter Leben (life “unworthy of life”) –as euthanasia was justified in the Germany of the Third Reich.
In Terri’s case, we can speak of the controversial diagnosis of PVS – persistent vegetative state. Yet, even while to speak of her as a “vegetable” might give a false reassurance to our conflicted consciences, she still remains a human being, no less human than Christopher Reeve who was kept alive on a respirator until he died late last year of natural causes. No one begrudged his heroic struggle to live and we were all edified by his courage and that of his family who stood by him. Terri, however, is not being kept alive by any machine as was Reeve for most of his last decade of life. She only needs assistance to be fed. Does the fact that he could speak and she cannot make it right to deprive her of the ordinary means of human sustenance? If so, how can any of our seriously ill brethren ever again trust themselves to sleep while under a doctor’s care?
Some would argue that to remove her feeding tube is simply to let nature take its course. Yet what is “natural” about starving to death? True, she was fed through a feeding tube – she depends on others but so did Christopher Reeve and so does a newborn baby depend on others for nutrition and hydration. John Donne said: “No man is an island entire of itself”. As members of the human race we all are interdependent on each other to one degree or another. The mark of a civilized society was that the helpless had the greatest claim on our protection. Now it would seem that they have the least.
And so, Holy Week, the annual remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death, begins with the Passion of Terri Schiavo. Terri’s agony has already begun and barring some miracle the denouement of Terri’s drama will be her death. This week in recalling Jesus’ Passover from death to life we celebrate the fact that the misterium iniquitatis is overcome through the misterium crucis. From the cross Jesus cried out and his cry is echoed today by all those held captive to a world of pain and sin. As Terri shares in his passion, she will share in his Resurrection. Like Jesus did, Terri Schiavo cries out, though with muted voice: “I thirst!”