Priest Disputes Governor’s Role in Shiavo Case

Posted on Thu, Oct. 30, 2003   Miami Herald  

Priest disputes governor’s role in Schiavo case

I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a doctor. But watching someone starve to death is just a troubling thing. I know a lot of liberal Catholic priests who would be troubled by that.”

— Jeb Bush, the day after he signed an order to have the feeding tube reinserted in Terri Schiavo’s body.

Too bad the governor never met Father Kevin O’Rourke, a Catholic priest as well as a nationally renowned professor of ethics at Loyola University ‘s medical school.

”Well, I’m not a liberal,” O’Rourke told me after hearing the governor’s words. “I’m far from a liberal. But I can attest that from a theological point of view that what the governor and others are doing to Terri is not doing any good for her. And the rhetoric the governor is using is foolish. That’s the only way you can describe it. It shows his medical ignorance because it’s attested in many studies that when people in that condition do not have nutrition they do not suffer.”

O’Rourke, the author of four books on medical ethics, finds it sad that the governor has tried to justify his actions on religious grounds and that Bush has used Schiavo’s plight to curry favor with the religious conservatives.

”For Christians, it is a blasphemy to keep people alive as if you were doing them a favor, to keep people alive in that condition as if it benefits them. It doesn’t benefit them,” O’Rourke argues. “I know it is wrapped up in the pro-life, antiabortion activity, and while I am antiabortion, I also know there is eternal life and that we should not confuse or equate the antiabortion effort with the notion of withdrawing life support from dying people.

“They act as though the most important thing is to lead a long life and Christians who read the Gospel seriously believe that it is a good life you are pursuing, not a long life. But this notion of having a long life has become the watchword for these groups. Life is terminal. Life by definition is going to have an end.”

O’Rourke has been following cases such as Schiavo’s for years. He says that whenever he talks to groups around the country, he’ll ask people in the audience to assume they have been in a vegetative state for several years but are able to come out of it for just 10 seconds to say something.

Would you tell your loved ones to continue keeping you alive in this fashion?

”Nobody ever says yes,” O’Rourke notes. “If we can just get the emotion out of it, then it becomes clear you are not doing anything good for this person.”

The governor, who is a Catholic, denies he is pandering to the religious right, but with his brother facing reelection next year, the timing of the decision is certainly suspect and plays to the fact that as a society we have a difficult time accepting death.

”We are in a death denying society,” says Sandol Stoddard, who was one of the founders of the hospice movement in the United States . “We are in the most death denying society that I have ever heard about or read about. We just don’t want to accept the idea that we are going to die.”

For Stoddard and O’Rourke, who have devoted the majority of their lives to the issues surrounding death and dying, the governor’s actions in the case are infuriating.

The notion of the government ordering doctors to perform a medical procedure on a woman supposedly against her will is simply horrific. And no matter how you may want to couch it, that is exactly what happened. Schiavo’s parents admit they do not know what their daughter’s wishes were. Her husband, Michael, says Terri was very clear in not wanting to be kept alive through artificial means, and two other witnesses said they also heard Terri make such statements. More than a dozen judges, state and federal, have ruled in support of the husband.

And yet Bush and the Florida Legislature dismissed all of that by deciding she is too important a political tool to let die.

”The government of Florida is a laughingstock for the rest of the country,” O’Rourke says. “Anyone who knows the law knows this is an abuse of personal rights.”