Terri Schiavo – A Life That Matters by Mary and Robert Schindler
et al (Warner Books, $32.95 272 pages).
She’s a human being,” I cried out. “Nobody seems to notice.” For well over a decade, these two sentences described the plight of Mary Schindler and her family. Medical experts had declared their daughter, Terri Schindler-Schiavo, to be in a persistently vegetative state. Michael Schiavo – Terri’s husband – sought the withdrawal of Terri’s feeding tube. Michael was now engaged to a woman named Jodi Centonze, who had bore him two sons, and Michael no longer wanted to be bound to his wedding vows.
Michael would succeed in bringing about his disabled wife’s death. The process involved a painful two-week period of starvation and dehydration. Michael enjoyed the support of the Florida state judiciary and the persistently vegetative mainstream media. He was backed by George Felos, a euthanasia activist who happens to be the legal field’s equivalent to Dr. Jack “the Dripper” Kevorkian. Complacent in this whole affair was Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Michael might have succeeded earlier but for the courage of Mary, her husband Bob, the couple’s son Bobby and their younger daughter Suzanne. The family are what South Floridians call good people – not perfect people, but people whom we admire for their moral fortitude. A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo – A Lesson for Us All is the story of these good people. It is the story of how God called an ordinary Catholic family to take an extraordinary stand for the culture of life.
“We’re an intensely private family who loathe the spotlight and would have given anything not to have it shine on us,” the Schindlers write in the preface. “Many people have asked us to write a book, and we’ve always said no, refusing to open ourselves up to the pain of public display all over again. But we keep thinking of Terri and how she died and we realize we owe her this book as a way of making sure that what happened will never happen again.”
I should note that I did not read this book without bias. I first met the Schindler family while covering Terri’s story as it unfolded for The Interim. The Schindlers immediately impressed me as a tight-knit family with impeccable honesty and a deep-rooted faith. They do not hide their faults, but admit them openly. My wife and I consider it a blessing to count them among our friends.
This book reads like our lasting impression of the family. It is not without its faults, but these are worn openly throughout the book. For instance, the book is written from the perspective of all four members of Terri’s immediate family. On the positive side, this demonstrates the unity with which Terri’s parents and siblings fought for her life. Yet, it becomes a tad confusing in the book’s early chapters. One cannot always discern which family member is speaking without going back to re-read the passage. Fortunately, this problem resolves itself by the third chapter, when Terri’s mother establishes herself as the primary narrator.
Other times, the faults concern individual family members being too trusting, struggling to uphold the Christian ideal or falling into the rhetoric of the culture of death. As an example of the latter, Bobby is just as harsh with himself when criticizing the use of the term “vegetative state.”
“People don’t describe them as disabled anymore,” Bobby writes, “but as vegetables. In fact, I read about a kid in college who dressed as a vegetable for Halloween and called herself Terri Schiavo. I think ‘vegetable’ is used purposely. It’s easier for people to rationalize taking a human life if she’s in a ‘vegetative state.'”
He adds: “We fell into that trap ourselves. We had to argue that Terri wasn’t PVS – even though she didn’t fall into PVS criteria – because only then would she be allowed to live. But why did Terri have to prove anything? She’s a human being.”
Rather than weaken their pro-life witness, these candid admissions strengthen the family’s credibility as they share Terri’s story. “Our family’s made a lot of mistakes,” Bob and Mary answer when asked why they did not lie under oath to save Terri’s life, “but the one thing we don’t do is lie.”
Another positive Schindler trait is their eternal optimism. This optimism was fueled in part by Fred Schindler, Terri’s uncle. “Fred Schindler had been in a coma after a car accident several years (previous to Terri’s collapse) and, contrary to his doctor’s negative prognosis, had progressed remarkably after months of rehabilitation, to the point where he was able to live on his own.”
Even if Terri had not been capable of recovery, it is clear her family would have gladly devoted the rest of their lives to looking after her. Their character repeatedly shines through in the book, just as it does in person. At times, I may question certain actions – why would anyone, post Roe v. Wade, trust the secular courts to come back with a just ruling on a right-to-life issue? – but I never doubt the family’s honesty or integrity. Nor do I doubt the cause for which they are fighting. In short, I believe Bob and Mary when they state they are carrying out this battle for all disabled people whose lives are threatened by the proponents of euthanasia.
“Bob and I believe that God put Terri on earth to serve as a beacon,” Mary explains near the beginning of the book, “that she was taken from us so that others who suffer Terri’s plight will not be taken from those who love them.”
“So my own motive was clear,” Mary adds in one of the book’s final chapters. “I determined to devote my life to making sure that what happened to me and my child would never have to happen again.”
In the end, this book sounds a terrible warning about where our society is headed. Our elderly and disabled are at risk unless, like the Schindlers, we take a stand for their dignity as human persons. I recommend this book to anyone concerned with the growing push to legalize euthanasia.