FIRST-PERSON: Make sure she didn't die in vain

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Terri Schindler Schiavo entered eternity on March 31 just after 9 a.m. EST.

I can't tell you what her personal relationship with Jesus Christ was, but I can promise you this: Eternity's judge will give her justice -- something she was denied in this life by her husband, his lawyers and their medical experts, most reporters, a whole series of state and federal judges, a raft of government officials and an appalling percentage of the American people.

Those of us whose hearts have not yet turned entirely to stone must make sure she didn't die in vain.

While the case is enormously complex, here are some of the lessons we need to take to heart:

-- Our legal and medical community has decided that feeding a patient is a form of artificial life support.

To them, starving a severely disabled patient is no different than disconnecting a ventilator. "Starvation is part of the process of dying," they say. Do they mean that, if they had a choice about how to die, they would choose starvation? If you have decided a person must die -- for whatever reason -- you ought to do it in the most humane method possible. If starving an injured animal or death-row inmate would be cruel, why is it humane when the person is disabled?

-- No one proved that Terri wanted to die if she ever became incapacitated.

When human life is at stake, we ought to demand proof that the victim did not want extraordinary measures taken to preserve life. Judge George Greer decided this "fact" of the case without adequate proof, taking the word of Terri's unfaithful husband over the testimony of the family that loved her. That "fact" became the key sticking point in all the appeals, because appeals judges were not permitted -- or refused -- to question it.

-- We live in a culture that has decided some lives aren't worth living.

When Judge Greer decided that Terri had no chance of "meaningful recovery," he made a value judgment about the worth of an injured person's life if that person cannot care for herself and communicate readily. One of the experts he whose advice he accepted was Ronald Cranford, a University of Minneapolis neurology professor, who also believes Alzheimer's patients should not be fed because they lack personhood and therefore have no constitutional rights. That should frighten all of us, knowing that most of us will one day be in a vulnerable condition as well. It certainly terrifies thousands of people who are elderly and disabled right now.

-- Our court system does not protect the weak who cannot speak for themselves.

If the deaths of 40 million unborn children hasn't taught us this, perhaps now the murder of disabled people will. The only lawyer Terri ever had was the one who represented her unfaithful husband. Special legislation gave a federal judge the power to go back and look into the facts of the case from scratch. Judge James Whittemore, however, chose to maintain the legal status quo, rather than be sure that justice was done. Congress and the president went to enormous lengths to ensure that Terri got the protection she deserved, and the facts of the case should have been reviewed.

-- An unfaithful spouse should not be given the power of life and death.

Michael Schiavo set up housekeeping with another woman while his wife languished in an institution. One nurse testified that he was always asking hospice staff how much longer it would be until Terri died. His testimony about her medical wishes never should have been taken at face value, especially since he didn't mention it until five years after her injury. He never should have been given power over her as legal guardian.

-- Pride gets in the way of justice.

In addition to being a bad judge of Michael Schiavo's character and being prejudiced against the disabled, Judge Greer repeatedly proved unwilling to consider whether his first decision might have been in error. No solid evidence existed that Terri wanted to die in that manner under those circumstances. Abundant evidence existed that she was not in a “persistent vegetative state.” New medical tests could have made her exact condition far more clear than the tests conducted years ago. But Greer stubbornly stuck to the course he had set.

-- Don't count on government officials to stand up for your rights.

The courage of conviction no longer inhabits the halls of power. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came close to making a good decision when he moved to have the state take custody of Terri. But then he held a press conference to announce his intentions! When the biased judge ordered sheriff's deputies to prevent the state from taking custody, Bush backed down. Terri died because he lacked the courage to take decisive action and rescue her.

-- Most of America's reporters are lazy and not especially smart.

They were too lazy to figure out for themselves what the story was about -- and not smart enough to pin down double-talking interview subjects who kept repeating statements that were patently misleading. Most reporters continued to refer to Terri's situation as a "right to die" case when, in fact, her desire to die had never been proven. They parroted other reporters who said her condition was the result of a heart attack, when in fact there is no conclusive evidence as to what caused her heart to stop beating. When those trying to kill her kept using the excuse that she would never make a "meaningful recovery," reporters failed to pin them down on what that means and who has the right to decide that a disabled person's life is not valuable just as it is.

-- Don't count on the American people to rise up in your defense if your fundamental human rights are being violated.

We didn't care enough about protecting the weak to tear ourselves away from Oprah or the NCAA tournament and raise our voices on behalf of this helpless woman. We are too comfortable on our couches, too distracted by our video opiates, too much at ease to worry about the sanctity of human life -- because it was, after all, someone else's life.

Those who prayed for Terri and cried out on her behalf can rest in the knowledge that she left her oppression to enter an eternity ordained by our loving God. You also can know that her oppressors one day will meet their Maker with her blood still staining their hands. God will judge them with the same measure of justice and mercy they showed her.

It is up to you, however, to be sure that she did not die in vain.

Pray that God's spirit will pierce the conscience of every American, including those who oppressed Terri, if they aren't hopelessly hardhearted. Confront your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers with the plight of the disabled and weak in our society. Challenge them to tear themselves away from their distractions long enough to make it clear to government officials that the disabled are, in fact, fully human. Demand that they strengthen laws protecting the disabled and require incontrovertible proof of each person's desire to die in extreme medical emergency.

And once in a while, let's drag ourselves off the couch, seek out the families of the disabled and minister to them in their distress.


Mark Kelly is the author of "Proof Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The end of Christian apologetics," available only at kainospress.com.

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