The Terri Schiavo Case

I think that the Terri Schiavo case is complex because it pits competing values against each other. On the one hand, the case seems relatively simple, especially as it was often presented by the mainstream press.

1.  The first area of conflict has to do with whom basic decision-making rests. With an underlying jurisprudence rooted in Scripture and thousands of years of legal tradition, the courts ruled that Terri’s husband was her primary care-giver and the one in charge of these decisions.

2.  In the American system, as it was understood prior to the U. S. Constitution’s becoming somewhat self-contradictory and widely being interpreted “dynamically” rather than “statically,” these matters should rest with the state courts and not involve the Federal judiciary.

3.  We are increasingly able to sustain human existence through “heroic measures” such as respirators. Do any of us want to be kept alive indefinitely with negligible brain activity and no realistic hope of recovery?

Yet none of those three issues is completely black and white in the Schiavo case. And one has to dig beyond the daily newspaper or network news to discover the other side of the coin.

1. Michael Schiavo, in effect, divorced Terri when he married another woman by common law and is now raising two children with her. This is the heart of the matter, and had it been equitably settled, it would have prevented this entire agonizing drama. Once it was legally established that Mr. Schiavo had abandoned his wife for another woman, he should have been removed as her primary legal custodian and that role should have reverted to Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler.

2. It appears to me that Judge Greer made up his mind early on in this case and then chose to ignore a lot of evidence thereafter that should have caused him to reconsider his decision. I am not a physician, but the data on Terri’s Fight causes me to have a lot of questions and tends to make me side with those physicians who believe that Terri was not in a persistent vegetative state. If that is indeed the case, then Terri was murdered. 

Our legal system provides for judicial review all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, and we are a nation under a written constitution, one interpreted by the judiciary. However, once that document has been separated from its historical moorings, this can lead to a judicial tyranny where one branch of our government not only overrules the other two, but actually begins to function as a de facto legislature.

What is the remedy for this? I don’t know because I interpret Romans 13 very strictly and would never resort to violence, much less, take up arms against the government. But there are lots of other people who don’t take the Bible into serious consideration, and they don’t have a problem using violence to right a wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if the now, self-excommunicated Baptist, George Greer, doesn’t eventually meet a twenty-first century John Brown like Paul Hill. That will be a sad day for the Pro Life Movement. But were I a betting man, I wouldn’t bet on poor Judge Greer living a long, peaceful life, unless he moves out of the United States. In the long run, I bet he’d rather be fed through a feeding tube than to have to be accompanied by body-guards for the rest of his life.

3. Terri Schiavo was being fed through a feeding tube; that is a far cry from a respirator. Back in 1974, I stood beside a member of my congregation, watching his wife die after the doctors disconnected the devices that forced oxygenated blood to course through her veins. She died within ten minutes of being disconnected. When the doctors proposed this action, I had some reservations but supported my congregant’s decision, nevertheless. Looking back, I have no doubt that he made the right decision. When my wife’s mother came down with Alzheimer’s disease back in the early nineties, I watched its slow but steady progress as it stole her mind and then her body. Alzheimer’s is not a happy journey to the Celestial City.

My mother-in-law’s disease was managed by her family—first, pretty much by her husband, then by my wife. We moved her to Central Louisiana about fourteen months before she died because my father-in-law simply could no longer tend to her by himself. For many months, he would alternate his time staying with us and traveling back to Florida to tend to things there. Then on January 16, 2001, Mrs. Price was discharged from her last stay in the hospital, and after one night in one of those Gulags for the elderly and dying, she once again moved into our home. From that day until her death around eight in the morning on May 9, 2001, she never got out of the bed. She couldn’t even turn herself or roll over; she could only wave her arms. We watched as she developed gangrene on the heel of her right foot. The nurses who came every other day debated with the doctor who oversaw her care; it was decided not to amputate, and the dark spot grew. Then one day the gangrenous, golf-ball-sized piece of necrotic tissue simply fell off; to our amazement, she lived on a couple of more months.

In keeping with her living will, we did not allow “heroic measures,” but we always made sure that she had food and water. It would have been barbaric to have denied her this comfort. For the last months of her life, she was regularly given a morphine based drug for pain. I have no difficulty with a physician administering pain-numbing drugs, even if they shorten somebody’s life. (Proverbs 31:6, 7: “Give strong drink to him who is ready to perish and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”) But it is murder to administer those same drugs beyond the smallest level that it takes to numb the pain for the direct purpose of ending a human life.

Terri Schiavo’s situation is all very, very sad, but it is a situation that takes place many times a day throughout America. It’s simply that in most cases, people’s relatives haven’t come to hate each other so viscerally and to express that hatred so spitefully. Nor do we have the two extreme wings in the culture war lined up outside, each playing to the media.

Would I want to live by means of a respirator? Not unless it was a temporary measure performed with a view to my recovery.

Would I want to live with a feeding tube? That is much more complex. I would want food and water—that’s for sure—but if I couldn’t receive them other than by a feeding tube, I’m not sure. That depends on other circumstances. I wouldn’t want them if I had been in a coma for a long time and had no reasonable hope of recovery.

Who should make that decision?

I don’t fully trust the medical industry—it used to be a profession, and there are still a good number of physicians who are professionals—but because of funding issues involving insurance companies and civil authorities, I don’t trust this industry the way many people still do. Do you expect all these bureaucrats to act completely ethically, detached from financial considerations, whether or not they wear the initials, M.D., after their names?

I trust my government even less. As Christians, we should pray for the civil authorities over us; we should respect their offices and obey their commands that do not force us to sin. But we should never view government as our friend, much less trust it, even though it functions under God’s sovereign purpose.
I trust my wife, and beyond her, I trust my children and my family called Grace Presbyterian Church. I trust that they would do for me what I would do for them.

If my wife were in a long-term coma, with no realistic prognosis for recovery, I would order the doctors to disconnect her respirator. But I would do my best to see that she was comfortable and as free from pain as possible. I would make sure that she had food and water, even if it required constant attention and a lot of personal effort to give her these vital things. But if she couldn’t receive nourishment without a feeding tube, and if she was completely unable to let her will be known, and if there were no realistic hope that her situation would ever improve, I would order her feeding tube removed. It’s what I would want done to me.


“Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:4.)