Terri Schiavo: Facts and Myths – Dr. Dianne Irving

Terri Schiavo: Myths and Facts
By Dr. Dianne Irving, PhD

NoteThe tragic case of Terri Schiavo and her poor family will rapidly bloom into the United States’ “euthanasia test case” for the international bioethics and right to die movements.  So it is important now to see this connection, and factor it in when listening to media and press reports on Terri’s situation.  In addition to resolving this case properly and decently for Terri and her family, all of us, you and me, will be the direct benefactors of it’s resolution one way or another as it sets legal precedent in the courts.  One classic bioethics tactic is to get their bioethics agenda passed in one state, and then “codify” the law across all of the United States. Such is probably the situation in Florida.  This means that all of us have an interest in how this case is finally settled.   Most of all, as usual, the true and accurate facts involved in this tragic case are being manipulated, thus confusing the public and other decision makers.  It is therefore vital to get the facts of this case as accurate as possible as the starting point for all other discussions, before they are adequately twisted and then rapidly moved into the larger bioethics debates.  Keeping open minds while the truth makes its way through this process is critical.  To that end, for starters, please consider the following as we know the facts now.  More excellent articles, amicus curiae briefs from physicians, lawyers, nurses, other experts, etc., can be found on the Schiavo website at http://www.terrisfight.org.

MYTH: Terri has been in a persistent vegetative state, a coma, or is terminally ill, for 13 years.
FACT:  NO.  Terri is disabled and has brain damage, but is not in PVS, coma, or terminally ill.

MYTH: This is just a “religious” issue.
FACT:  NO.  While Terri’s religious rights have definitely been criminally denied, it is fundamentally a disability issue in which her civil rights as a disabled citizen have also been denied.

MYTH:  Food and hydration are “extraordinary means”, and thus a patient has the right to refuse.
FACT:  NO.  Even, and especially, in secular terms, while the use of ventilators, drastic surgery, experimental “therapies”, etc., are extraordinary means and may be refused, food and hydration have always been defined in medicine as ordinary means, or “palliative care” (as is the use of antibiotics, needed X-rays, minor surgery, etc.).  For Catholics, it is morally permissible to refuse extraordinary means, but not morally permissible to refuse ordinary means, or palliative care (including food and hydration).  [See refutation of Fr. Murphy’s testimony at the Schiavo website:  http://www.terrisfight.org/lead.htm].  See also encyclicals and documents on euthanasia at:  Declaration on Euthanasia (1980),  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html.    Evangelium vitae, http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0141/_INDEX.HTM.    Respect for the Dignity of the Dying (2000), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdlife/documents/rc_pa_acdlife_doc_20001209_eutanasia_en.html.    The Charter for Health Care Workers (1995),http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/hlthwork/documents/rc_pc_hlthwork_doc_19950101_charter_en.html.    USCC, Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994),  http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/index.htm.  See refutation of Fr. Murphy’s court testimony by Vatican scholars:  http://www.terrisfight.org/Framesets/RecentFrame.htm.

MYTH:  Removal of food and hydration is “death with dignity” and painless.
FACT:  NO.  Removal of food and hydration is “death with gross indignity” and monstrously painful and ugly even with morphine or other drugs.

MYTH:  The issue is the “right to die“.
FACT:  NO. The issue is the “right to live“.

MYTH:  A husband always makes surrogate medical decisions for his disabled incompetent wife that are based solely on her best interests.
FACT:  NO.  It is well known and documented that many family members of disabled patients are tired of their difficult situation and want to get rid of the problem (i.e., the disabled patient).

MURKY:
—  Terri left no written directives, and a 10-years tardy “witness” who claims she said something to the effect.
—  There are legal submissions to the court, including by nurses who cared for Terri,  concerning her husband’s abuse of Terri.
—  There are conflicting medical and legal testimonies by “experts”.
—  There are conflicts of interests with the husband’s lawyer and the judge because of direct as well as indirect ties to the Florida euthanasia lobbyists and hospices.
—  There is a great moral distinction between direct and intentional killing, and allowing someone to die, letting the disease or condition take its course.  While that is taking place, all basic and fundamental palliative medical care should be given to the patient to make his/her death as dignified as possible — including food and hydration.

This is a minimal list to consider while we wait for all the facts.  Hope it is helpful.


Dr. Irving’s professional activities include teaching positions at Georgetown University, Catholic University of America, and The Dominican House of Studies. She represented the Catholic Medical Association of the United States, and the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, at the Scientific Conference in Mexico City, Mexico, October 28, 1999 and presented a paper on “The Dignity and Status of the Human Embryo”. Dr. Irving is a former career-appointed bench research biochemist/biologist (NIH, NCI, Bethesda, MD), an M.A. and Ph.D. philosopher (Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.), and Professor of the History of Philosophy, and of Medical Ethics.
Contact: DNIrving@aol.com