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Today is “Terri’s Day” — commemorating Terri Schiavo

Today is the sixth anniversary of Terri Schiavo’s murder.

I can already hear people objecting to that choice of words – so let’s just get that issue out of the way right off the bat. Murder is the deliberate killing of a human being. Terri was a human being, and her killing was deliberate.

The dirty secret of the murder of Terri Schiavo is that the American euthanasia movement had been itching for a long time for a court case garnering national attention that would do for the euthanasia movement what Roe v. Wade did for the abortion movement. To achieve that, they needed a “perfect storm” of the same three elements that made the legalization of abortion possible: 1. Hard-core activists, along with activist lawyers and judges; 2. ideologically sympathetic media who would carry water for the activists by taking their lies at face value and repeating them over and over; 3. an uninformed public, with ambivalent feelings about the issue, and thus, ripe for exploitation by agenda-driven media.

In Terri Schiavo, activists saw the same potential that pro-abortion lawyer Sarah Weddington had seen so many years earlier in a young, vulnerable Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. Jane Roe.

Both the judge who gave the order for deat- by-dehydration and the attorney who had argued for it had multiple personal and professional connections with “right-to-die” organizations and, significantly, with the hospice where Terri was held. Judicial ethics require that a judge with such a conflict of interest recuse himself from any case revolving on that issue. Judge George Greer failed to do so. And he has never been disciplined in any way for this violation.

Perhaps we should say that March 18 was the sixth anniversary of Terri’s murder – for that is when, by Judge Greer’s order, the murder began. Most human beings survive only three or four days without water, a week at most. But Terri was young, physically healthy and had a fierce desire to live. It took thirteen days to kill her. And so the murder dragged out, in full view of the whole world, as the victim’s mother, father, sister and brother desperately tried to save her — with police officers, in the end, forcibly blocking them even from seeing her.

How could this happen in a civilized nation? The same way such atrocities always do — with the help of some very big lies. Again, the parallel with the abortion movement: Just as the abortion movement relied on lies – for instance, the lie that Norma McCorvey had been raped (she hadn’t); the lie that a baby in the womb is just an undifferentiated clump of cells (in reality, all major organs are present within a few weeks, and heartbeat can be detected as early as 18 days); the lie that thousands of women were dying from illegal abortions (the true figure was in the dozens) – so too the euthanasia movement lied through their teeth about Terri Schiavo.

The biggest lie – the one the media repeated over and over until most people believed it – was that Terri was “brain dead.” When people finally started seeing through that lie – Terri, after all, was not even comatose, much less near death – they came up with a new one: that she was in a “persistent vegetative state” — an outdated term that is as inaccurate as it is demeaning, and has been much misused and abused.

To push their agenda, the media expertly played on people’s deep-seated fears for themselves – fears of disability and helplessness, fear of losing control over their lives, fear of “being a burden” – all of which had nothing to do with the particular individual, Terri Schindler Schiavo, and what she was experiencing. The media subtly got millions of people subconsciously projecting their own personal issues onto a particular woman in Pinellas Park, Florida.

Never shown in the lamestream media were the video clips of the real, actual person Terri Schiavo responding to music, vocalizing, beaming at her mother, laughing at her dad’s jokes. Euthanasia activists would say that Terri’s reactions in these film clips are just “reflexes.” (Just as pro-abortion activists who are shown the film “The Silent Scream” say that the baby’s frantic efforts to get away from the abortion instrument are nothing but “reflexes.”) I have always been particularly offended by such dismissive labeling because of my affection for a dear friend’s son – I’ll call him Carl – who’d suffered, as a toddler, an accident that deprived him of oxygen and left him profoundly disabled, much like Terri. (He died ten years ago, of natural causes.) Carl’s expressions, gestures and vocalizations were extremely similar to Terri’s; the first time I saw the video clips linked above, I felt almost as if I were watching Carl.

Perhaps that personal connection explains why I did what I did in March 2005. On the day of Judge Greer’s fatal decision, I listened to Sean Hannity on the radio interviewing Randall Terry. While Terri’s family and hundreds of supporters were down in Pinellas Park at the hospice where Terri was being held, Randall had been asked by the family to coordinate lobbying efforts at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee. Sean asked Randall to tell his listeners what they could do to help. Randall said simply, “Come to Tallahassee. Come to Tallahassee.”

So I did.

I’ll save for another time the chronicle of all the things I witnessed during those four days in Tallahassee as Terri lay dying 250 miles away. For now, I’ll just say that rarely have I seen good and evil, distilled down to their essences, in such clear, sharp juxtaposition. I’ll give one example. Fighting for the good was then-State Senator Dan Webster, who introduced and worked indefatigably – but unsuccessfully – for a bill that would have made the state’s “default mode” life in cases where an incapacitated person had no written directive and his or her family members disagreed about what to do. (This of course would have applied to Terri, and so would have saved her life.) I will never forget Webster’s compassion nor his untiring effort to secure justice.

On the side of evil, I will never forget the female state legislator who, brusquely passing me in a Capitol hallway, barked at me, “We can’t afford to keep all these people alive!” Her outburst was not only inhuman, but in Terri’s case, just plain stupid – since Terri’s parents and siblings were begging simply to be allowed to take Terri home and care for her at their own expense for the rest of her life. Although nothing mitigates the cruelty behind that legislator’s comment, it’s worth pointing out that it’s quite possible she didn’t know that Terri’s family planned to care for her themselves, because there was a total media blackout of many crucially important facts such as that one.

The best information resource was and is the website that was set up by supporters of Terri and her family during an earlier legal battle, a site known then as Terri’sFight.org. After Terri’s death, the site changed, both in name and in purpose (more on that below), but it still contains valuable historical documentation of all the facts of Terri’s case, including a concise but comprehensive timeline. A quick perusal of it gives one an idea of how many disturbing issues there were that the lamestream media couldn’t be bothered to explore.

For example, after Terri’s mysterious collapse that deprived her brain of oxygen for a time and left her profoundly disabled, her husband, Michael, brought a medical malpractice lawsuit that resulted in a large award to be used for Terri’s care and rehabilitation. Terri did receive physical and speech therapy, and was relearning how to feed herself, and how to speak. But then, despite the progress she was making, after only a few months of therapy, Michael suddenly ordered all therapy terminated. Why?

A good investigative journalist would have wanted to dig into that – but the “mainstream” media did not. Neither did anyone seem to be interested in asking why Terri, who had no terminal illness, was put in a hospice. Hospices are supposed to be for terminally ill patients, generally with a life expectancy of less than 6 months. Terri was physically healthy, so what was she doing there? And why was she put in a back room, with the blinds closed 24/7, not allowed out of her room, and deprived of amenities that the other patients in the hospice had access to? Did the fact that Michael’s lawyer was on the board of that hospice (and indeed was chairman of the board when Terri was placed there) have anything to do with the whole arrangement?

Sworn affidavits by 35 doctors and six other medical professionals were submitted to Judge Greer; each and every one was dismissed or ignored. Most of these affidavits certified — under oath — the specialist’s professional opinion that Terri was not in a “persistent vegetative state.” And every single one of them testified that Terri would have benefited from further therapy, which Michael had abruptly discontinued many years earlier. As for the video clips of Terri, which show so vividly how aware and responsive she really was, Judge Greer never saw them; he is physically blind. Again, why didn’t he recuse himself, since the visual evidence on the video clips were so important to the case? (A diagnosis of PVS ought not be a death sentence, but unfortunately, in Terri’s case, everything was made to revolve around that issue.)

Why wouldn’t Michael Schiavo give Terri a divorce, as Terri’s parents begged him to do? Michael had been living with another woman since 1994 and had two children by her — yet he wouldn’t divorce Terri and leave her in the care of her parents. Terri’s parents encouraged him to move forward with his life, marry his girlfriend, and leave Terri to them. They even told him to just keep the rest of the malpractice settlement – take anything you want, just let Terri live!! But he wouldn’t. Why not?

So many questions that never got asked. And stories that never got told (except in conservative outlets), such as this one: On that horrible day of March 18, before the final order came down from Judge Greer, one of the Schindler family’s lawyers, Barbara Weller, spent a lot of time visiting with Terri in her room, while, in the world outside the hospice, every possible legislative, executive and judicial approach was being frantically pursued in a race against the clock — a clock that had been set ticking by one cranky, unjust Florida district judge. Later, that evening, Weller described the hours she had spent with Terri that day to millions of listeners on talk radio. An excerpt:

The most dramatic event of this visit happened at one point when I was sitting on Terri’s bed next to Suzanne [Terri's sister]. Terri was sitting in her lounge chair and her aunt was standing at the foot of the chair. I stood up and leaned over Terri. I took her arms in both of my hands. [Terri's family had been keeping Terri informed, gently but honestly, about what was going on -- and Terri already knew what severe hunger and thirst feel like, because Michael had had her feeding tube removed a couple of times in the past.] I said to her, “Terri if you could only say ‘I want to live’ this whole thing could be over today.” I begged her to try very hard to say, “I want to live.”

To my enormous shock and surprise, Terri’s eyes opened wide, she looked me square in the face, and with a look of great concentration, she said, “Ahhhhhhh.” Then, seeming to summon up all the strength she had, she virtually screamed, “Waaaaaaaa.” She yelled so loudly that Michael Vitadamo, Suzanne’s husband, and the female police officer who were then standing together outside Terri’s door, clearly heard her. At that point, Terri had a look of anguish on her face that I had never seen before and she seemed to be struggling hard, but was unable to complete the sentence. She became very frustrated and began to cry.

I was horrified that I was obviously causing Terri so much anguish. Suzanne and I began to stroke Terri’s face and hair to comfort her. I told Terri I was very sorry. It had not been my intention to upset her so much. Suzanne and I assured Terri that her efforts were much appreciated and that she did not need to try to say anything more. I promised Terri I would tell the world that she had tried to say, ”I want to live.”

To my mind, the worst lie, other than the “brain dead” lie and the “vegetative” lie and the “she wouldn’t have wanted to live” lie, was the lie about death by dehydration. Over and over, Michael and the people he’d recruited to present his case to the media told us that dehydration is a painless, benevolent way to die. How utterly monstrous.

It’s true that when someone is dying of cancer or some other degenerative disease, the body eventually starts shutting down, and in the late stages, is unable to process food and water; indeed, trying to force food and water on someone whose organs are shutting down can cause pain. But Terri was physically healthy. She had no terminal disease. She only had a feeding tube because, after Michael had discontinued her therapies years earlier, it was safer and more comfortable for her to get her food by tube than by mouth. But there was nothing wrong with her digestive system; she needed food and water just as you and I do.

When a healthy person like you, me or Terri is deprived of water, they do not die peacefully; they die one of the ghastliest deaths there is. Dehydration typically kills people in a few days. Terri’s agony – dragged out for nearly two weeks – is unimaginable.

One more fact that you won’t hear in most media: Terri was not an isolated case. Because of the family conflict, and because the euthanasia movement needed a high-media-profile case to set a precedent, Terri’s ordeal ended up getting extraordinary attention. But death by starvation and dehydration is shockingly common in American hospitals and nursing homes – in some cases, even in direct violation of the patient’s official, written directive; in some cases, even in violation of the family’s unanimous wishes.

What Terri’s family went through is so horrible I can hardly bear to contemplate it. Once the ghastly media circus around their daughter’s excruciating death was over, one might have expected them to get as far away from the eye of the public as possible, and try to somehow put their lives back together.

But it was faith that had sustained them through their hideous ordeal, and their faith continued to guide them in the days and weeks afterward. Within a short time, they set up the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation, keeping the old terrisfight.org web address but transforming it into the site for the new Foundation, which is dedicated to educating people, advocating in the political sphere, and above all, helping other families who find themselves in similar situations to what the Schindlers went through, i.e., threatened with the involuntary death of a disabled family member. The Schindlers have made this outreach their life’s work. Terri’s father, Bob, has since gone to his reward in heaven, but her mother, Mary; her brother, Bobby; and her sister, Suzanne, are carrying on the mission.

The organization continues to grow more and more sophisticated and effective, and is now called the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. It includes a nationwide network of doctors and lawyers who volunteer to help threatened families at no cost. The Schindlers also do writing, public speaking and lobbying. Bobby, in particular, has testified before state legislatures and appeared before countless other groups to speak out on behalf of the medically dependent, disabled and incapacitated. One of the long-term goals of the network is “establishing Terri Schindler Schiavo Neurological Centers to provide care for brain injury victims and support for their families.” As with the anti-abortion branch of the pro-life movement, anti-euthanasia advocates know that it’s not just about fighting death, it’s about affirming life — offering a loving, winsome vision, along with real, practical options for people.

In keeping with that positive, life-affirming outlook, the organization has instituted an annual benefit concert. (Last year, the first, starred Randy Travis.) This year’s concert, in Kettering, OH (near Dayton), will star the Beach Boys. (For information and tickets, go here.) Doesn’t get much more sunny and life-loving than that!

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