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A chilling precedent

National | EUTHANASIA: The forced starvation of Terri Schiavo may be part of a larger effort to dehumanize the severely disabled

Issue: "John Paul II: In memoriam," Oct. 25, 2003

AFTER ALL THE YEARS, ALL THE fighting, all the bitter recriminations, there were remarkably few tears on Oct. 15 when Terri Schiavo finally had her feeding tube removed. Maybe the crowd of 80 or so gathered outside the hospice facility in western Florida were too angry to cry, or too numb.

For her part, Carla Sauer was just too tired. "I've been pulling for Terri since 1995," she said as she sank uncertainly onto a three-legged stool to rest the sandal-clad feet she'd been standing on for five hours. "I still can't believe it's come to this."

"This," apparently, is the end of the line in the long fight to keep Ms. Schiavo alive. A Florida judge on Oct. 14 refused two final appeals from her parents, clearing the way for the removal of the feeding tube that's kept her alive for a half-dozen years. Without the tube, the 39-year-old will slowly starve to death. It should take about 14 days.

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That's precisely the outcome her husband, Michael, has been pushing for. Claiming that Terri has been a vegetable since she collapsed after a heart attack in 1990, Mr. Schiavo says he is simply honoring a request made by his young bride: That he not allow doctors to prolong her life through artificial means.

Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, doubt she ever made such a request. But even if she did, they argue that a feeding tube is not the same as artificial life support. Her vital organs function on their own, she smiles and laughs at the sound of her loved ones' voices, and she has no terminal illness that threatens her life. If she simply has someone who cares enough to feed her, she could live for another 50 years-a condition not terribly different from that of thousands of other severely disabled persons.

"She's not a vegetable," Ms. Sauer insisted as she rested her tired feet. "She knows voices, she responds. She can follow commands, and she tries to communicate by blinking her eyelids 'yes' and 'no.'" And then there's the most important detail of all: "We used to feed her with a spoon, and she swallowed on her own."

That was seven years ago, when Ms. Sauer was a nurse at a rehab facility in Largo, Fla. At that time, Ms. Schiavo was getting physical therapy and full-time attention from skilled nurses. But the facility charged $4,000 a month, as Ms. Sauer recalls, and Mr. Schiavo soon chose to discontinue his wife's therapy and move her into the much cheaper hospice system. She's languished there for six years, tethered to a feeding tube while a fierce legal battle swirled around her.

The Schindlers argued that they should be named as Terri's guardians, in part because Mr. Schiavo now has a new girlfriend and a young child. Just because he's ready to move on with his life, they said, he should not be allowed to end Terri's. When a series of judges sided with Mr. Schiavo, the Schindlers appealed to the court of public opinion: They smuggled a video camera into their daughter's room-against a judge's orders-to show the world she could still laugh and smile and respond to affection.

With Terri now dying slowly, that video may be the Schindlers' final memory of their daughter. Rather than watching by her bedside, they are parked in a camper across the street. Bob Schindler has been charged with contempt of court, and he and his wife cannot visit their daughter without Mr. Schiavo's permission-or his lawyer.

The family tragedy, as painful as it is to watch, is only a part of a larger picture. Advocates for the disabled fear that Terri Schiavo's death could set a chilling precedent. "This is deplorable," Joni Eareckson Tada told WORLD in the midst of a whirlwind of press conferences and rallies. "What's happening here is just a part of a larger effort to class persons with severe cognitive disabilities as non-persons. Terri is not brain dead, she's not in a coma, she's not terminally ill. We have people who attend our weekend retreats who are more severely disabled. Yet the courts have washed their hands of this. Medical personnel are forbidden to deliver any food or water. She's being denied her right to humane treatment under state law.

"This case is a watershed for people with disabilities," Mrs. Tada said. "Removal of the feeding tube means you are promoting active euthanasia. As a quadriplegic woman, that's a frightening precedent."

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