Brain Dead?
Terri Schiavo gets the last word

Christopher A. Ferrara

 Rom Houben after 23 years in a ‘vegetative state’
(Posted 12/06/09
For 23 years, Rom Houben, a car crash victim in 1983, was presumed to be in a “vegetative state” from which he would never recover.  In truth, he was conscious the whole time and could hear everything being said about him.  Then a state-of-the-art brain scan discovered—oops—that Houben had a functional brain. 

Today, the “vegetable” is communicating with the help of a keyboard connected to his wheelchair, on which he types with the assistance of his nurse.  Using that keyboard he told CNN: “At some moments it was terribly lonely but I knew my family was believing in me… I simply want to enjoy life. I notice a big difference now I’m back in contact with the world.” (CNN International, November 24, 2009).

A remarkably eloquent vegetable, indeed. The Houben case prompts me to write about the case of Theresa Marie Schiavo, in which I was involved as a civil rights attorney in 2003. In viewing the CNN video of Houben in his nursing home, I was struck by the identity between his “vegetative” appearance and that of Theresa Marie Schiavo, whose life I tried to save in federal court after the Florida state judicial system had virtually sentenced her to death under a Florida statute that “authorizes” a “guardian” (her husband in this case) to seek termination of “artificial hydration and nutrition” for patients deemed to be in what the statute terms “a persistent vegetative state.” 

Like Rom Houben, Theresa Schiavo was profoundly disabled: unable to speak, stand, walk, lift her arms, or feed herself.  And yet Terry was able to respond appropriately with smiles and even tears to the comments of her parents and siblings, laugh with delight at music, look toward those who were speaking to her, follow a balloon with her eyes, and utter vocal noises in response to questions, clearly indicating a struggle to communicate.  All of this was seen in the videotape evidence that the state courts and various “experts” explained away as “reflexive” actions.

The federal litigation I filed on behalf of Terry’s parents in the Middle District of Florida (Schindler v. Schiavo, 2003 WL 22469905) was dismissed on technical jurisdictional grounds: since the state court proceedings had gone to final judgment, the federal courts could not entertain a suit attacking the judgment.

But in orally arguing the case before the federal judge who heard it, I noted the deadly absurdity at work in the rationale for Terry’s demise: Terry did not need the feeding tube considered to be “artificial” hydration and nutrition; she could be spoon-fed by her parents or other care-givers like other profoundly disabled people, in which case the statute afforded no grounds to starve her to death as she did not need any “artificial” means to survive.

But Terry’s “guardian” husband—already living out of wedlock with another woman by whom he had two children—opposed any effort to train Terry for spoon-feeding or even to test her for the capacity to swallow on her own.  As World Net Daily reported: “Ferrara told Judge Lazzara on Tuesday that the Schindlers are worried that once [the state court] schedules the removal of Terri's feeding tube, Michael Schiavo will keep the parents from trying to spoon feed Terri. ‘They (The Schindlers) are about to lose their daughter because no one wants to put a teaspoon of Jell-O to her mouth,’ Ferrara said. ‘It’s insane.’”

But insanity prevailed.  On March 31, 2005 at 9:05 a.m., after a complex round of further state and federal appeals, Theresa Marie Schiavo died at a hospice in Pinellas County Florida, thirteen days after the standard gastric tube that had supplied her with food and water for fifteen years was disconnected for the third and last time by order of a Florida probate judge. The Florida appellate court had concluded that Terry “would wish to permit a natural death process to take its course and for her family members and loved ones to be free to continue their lives”—the “natural death process” involving thirteen days of starvation and dehydration.  Over that thirteen-day period Theresa was slowly put to death, while Catholics, other Christians and even people of no faith around the world protested, prayed and waited for the end. 

While Terry lay dying for lack of food and water in that hospice, I addressed a crowd outside about the modern errors, condemned by Pope after Pope before Vatican II, that had led inexorably to Terry’s state-sanctioned execution—which is what it was, no matter what euphemisms are applied to the passive euthanasia to which she was subjected.  Those errors can be summed up in one phrase: the “emancipation” of society from the Catholic Church.  Terry was, in the end, a helpless victim of the separation of Church and State, and thus public from “private” morality, that is the hallmark of political modernity.

Almost a year to the day before Theresa died, and with her situation obviously in view, Pope John Paul II ridiculed the legal concept of “persistent vegetative state” and rejected, point by point, the legal rationale that was leading to her death. In his address to a Vatican medical conference the Pope declared: “A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a ‘vegetable’…Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a ‘vegetative state’ retain their human dignity in all its fullness….The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed….[T]he administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act.

Of course, here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, no teaching of any Roman Pontiff could have any impact on the “rule of law” in which we pride ourselves. John F. Kennedy publicly declared as much in promising not to be Catholic as President. Four days before Theresa breathed her last, Governor Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, abandoned his heroic efforts to save her because “I cannot violate a court order. I don’t have power from the U.S. Constitution, or the Florida Constitution, for that matter, that would allow me to intervene after a decision has been made.” (CNN, March 27, 2005).

On the very day of Terry’s death, President Bush, clearly echoing the Pope, issued this statement from the White House: “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. 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 favor of life.”

On the same date, in Texas, then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay offered an even more dramatic statement: “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” And, at the Vatican, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins denounced the passive euthanasia of Theresa Schiavo as  “an attack against God.”

But “[i]n the end,” wrote a reporter for The Washington Post,  “it was an array of federal and state judges, spanning the ideological spectrum, who declared that what happened here Thursday morning is what Terri Schiavo, 41, would have wanted.” (Washington Post, April 1, 2005). 

Because, you see, in America whatever a judge decrees (after appropriate appeals, of course) must be done, even if what he decrees is contrary to the very “essence of civilization,” as President Bush called it. For in America, nothing is higher than “the rule of law”—not even God, much less the Church that He established, which the Founding Fathers viewed as a coven of ignorance and superstition that must never be allowed to have any influence over the exercise of enlightened government. The triumph of Deist and Protestant revolutionaries over “popery” and the state-sanctioned execution of Theresa Schiavo are merely points on a continuum that began when Western man ceased to be Catholic.

It was a great privilege, but also a terrible burden, to fight for Terry’s life alongside other advocates—above all, Patricia Anderson, a consummate lawyer, who fought the state court’s death order for year after year until all conceivable options were exhausted. We were all contending with a juridical system from which God and His law have been excluded by the decrees of mere men.

Rom Houben survived that system, as Belgium apparently does not have a counterpart of the Florida statute that was Terry’s death warrant. But Terry, under our “rule of law,” became one of the tens of millions of victims of the holocaust of the innocent that blazes ever higher in the sight of an avenging God in these last days of our culture of death.

Pray for the repose of the soul of Theresa Marie Schiavo.  Pray for Rom Huben. And pray for the salvation of America from the fate of all nations that rebel against the God who is the source of all authority, on earth as it is heaven.

Christopher A. Ferrara is President and Chief Counsel of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, Inc.——a tax-exempt religious organization dedicated to the defense of the rights of Catholics in courts around the country and in the public forum. 

(Tax-deductible donations are welcome and urgently needed).