As She Lay Dying

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 27, 2005

Terri Schiavo is dying as a result of a traumatic incident 15 years ago that left her brain starved for oxygen. Since then Mrs. Schiavo has been dependent on a feeding tube for her very life. And now by court order, her husband has been granted permission to remove it. It would seem that all appeals have been exhausted, that Terri is dying, and that she will die in a matter of days.

The situation is tragic. It is certainly tragic for Terri—let us not forget that. It is a tragedy also for Michael Schiavo, who cared for his wife for so many years. We can only imagine how much he has lost through Terri's ordeal. It is tragic as well for Terri's family—the Schindlers—now facing the death of their daughter.

As we consider this tragedy, there are strong reasons to think that the courts should have been more cautious in allowing Terri's feeding tube to be removed. This is a matter of life. I agree with President Bush's statement that there ought to be a presumption in favor of life. We should also be cautious because close family members are fully willing to undertake the burden of Mrs. Schiavo's care. We should be cautious because she was not dying, but will die only if nutrition and hydration are removed. This in itself is not extraordinary. Many people in our culture depend on others for their physical sustenance. Then there is the fact that typically euthanasia moves from the voluntary and the passive to the involuntary and the active; it moves from letting die to killing. Therefore, the courts should not allow the removal of basic nutrition to become too easy.

I believe that Mrs. Schiavo's nutrition and hydration should be continued because such care is part of our obligation to care for human persons. I have three reasons for saying this. First, whether or not she is in a persistent vegetative state—and this has been disputed—Terri is still a person. Therefore, she should not be abandoned. It is basic to the Christian approach to any life-related issue that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God (see Gen. 1:26–27). This claim is fundamental to the further biblical prohibition against murder, or the morally unjustified taking of a human life. Why is such killing unjustified? Because people are made in the likeness and image of God.

This category fully applies to Terri Schiavo. Regardless of her mental state, she is a human person, and thus entitled to all the protections of her personhood. This is not dependent on the state of her consciousness. Her life has a meaning far beyond her own self-fulfillment. Even in her present condition, she retains her personhood for being in the image of God. And we should be deeply concerned whenever certain persons are considered expendable, or whenever persons who deserve our care are distinguished from those who don't. History teaches us that when we determine that certain lives are not worth living, the door is opened to cruelty. Allowing Terri to starve is justified only if we conclude that her life is not worth living. And this fails to show proper respect for her personhood.

Second, I believe that we have a fundamental duty to provide food and water to those who cannot feed themselves. The Supreme Court has ruled that so-called artificial nutrition and hydration is a medical procedure. Nevertheless, it is a simple procedure. It is routine and easy to use. It is not high-tech. But the real point is to consider what category of care it provides: basic care. It provides nutrition and hydration—that is to say, food and water. From the standpoint of Christian discipleship, this is a basic duty. Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example. Or think of what Jesus said about how giving food and drink to the needy is really giving it to him (Matt. 25:35).

Think as well how important it is in the Christian life to do things for people that they are unable do for themselves. Just as it would be wrong to take away shelter or clothing, or any other basic necessities to a person in need so also it is wrong to take away nutrition and hydration. This is well-stated in the position statement of the Christian Medical and Dental Society: “Nutritional support is both a universal human biologic requirement and a fundamental demonstration of human caring. Because we believe that there should be a basic covenant between those who are incapacitated, we are committed to the provision of food and water to those who cannot feed themselves.”

Finally, there is no certainty that death is what Terri would have wanted. There is no clear and convincing statement of her intentions. There is no proof. Indeed, there is no evidence apart from the hearsay of her husband, Michael. At the most, Terri may have made a general comment about not wanting extreme measures, but not in any situation specific way. Many Christians distinguish between artificial respiration and the more basic provision of nutrition and hydration.

There are also moral reasons to be skeptical of Michael Schiavo's claim that death is what Terri would have wanted. After all, he gave nearly the opposite testimony during civil litigation that preceded the current appeals process. When Michael was pursuing the funding that he considered to be needed for Terri's care, he said that it was his intention to care for her indefinitely, with the expectation that she would live into her 50's. Now he makes a very different claim, one he did not make until seven years after the onset of Terri's disability.

It should also be said that Mr. Schiavo is in flagrant violation of his marriage covenant. Should Terri's decision-maker be a man who has broken covenant with the wife of his youth by having children with another woman? This too is a moral concern, giving grounds for skepticism. Under Old Testament Law, when a man violated his marriage covenant, his wife's oversight and care returned to her family, as should be done in this case.

Terri Schiavo is not dead, she was not dying, and she should not now be left to die by an act of omission that has no other moral intention than to kill her.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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