Let Terri die!

No doubt, you find this exclamation surprising. It certainly surprised me when I first read it as the subject heading of an e-mail I received. Along with my wife who was nine months pregnant at the time, our family had spent the past week at a prayer vigil for Terri Schindler-Schiavo.

What particularly shocked us was that this e-mail came from a fellow disability advocate. My wife and I are active members of the International Order of Alhambra, a 100-year-old Catholic family organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and cognitively challenged.

Of all people, an advocate for those with special needs should recognize the value of human life. This value is intrinsic to who we are as human persons. It does not arise from our capacity to accomplish a certain level of activity judged useful by society. After all, God created us human “beings” and not human “doings.”

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, Terri is a 39-year-old woman in Florida. She requires a feeding tube as a result of a collapse 13 years ago that left her severely brain-damaged. After receiving an extensive cash settlement in a medical malpractice lawsuit, her husband Michael Schiavo has spent the past decade attempting to deny Terri basic medical treatment.

Enlisting the legal support of George Felos – a well-known attorney, practitioner of New Age spirituality and euthanasia advocate – Michael is now seeking to pull Terri’s feeding tube. This would bring about Terri’s slow death through starvation and dehydration. Michael and George claim Terri is in a persistent vegetative state and would not have wanted to live this way. For the most part, the persistently secular old media have accepted their claims without asking where these claims lead.

Fortunately, God blessed Terri with parents who understand the value of human life. I happen to know Bob and Marie Schindler personally. They are good, pro-life people. While the mainstream media often stereotype them as religious extremists or unrealistic dreamers who refuse to let go, our many conversations never confirmed them to be such. Both of Terri’s parents recognize that barring a miracle, Terri will never fully recover. Terri will always require special care.

As devout Catholics, however, Bob and Marie continue to draw their strength from God in the fight for Terri’s life. Subsequently, they trust God for the spiritual strength to persevere in Terri’s care, should the courts return Terri’s guardianship to them. Yet, far from being about Terri’s “right-to-die,” for the Schindlers, the issue is about Terri’s right to life.

“We often pray for Terri,” Bob Schindler once confided in me after a particularly gruelling press conference. “But we also pray for all other parents in similar situations, especially those who have not been blessed with the same resources to fight this as we have. Please ask the Alhambras membership to pray for these folks as well.”

The concern expressed by Terri’s father resonates among those who care for the mentally and cognitively challenged. In my office as supreme vizier of the Order of Alhambra, I encounter these special children on an almost daily basis. Many of our special brothers and sisters are highly functional. They require only a minimal amount of supervision. On the other hand, the cognitive and mental capacity of other special children does not differ much from that of Terri Schindler-Schiavo.

For far from demonstrating the behaviour we often associate with a persistent vegetative state, Terri laughs, smiles and appears to react differently to different people. The average person with no formal medical training would simply assume that Terri has Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Surely, we have not degenerated to the point where we wish to do away with these folks as well?

At one time, I considered such a question rhetorical. Unfortunately, in recent decades, the culture of death has become much more pervasive within our society. Not too long ago, our local Alhambra caravan conducted a canister drive in front of the local supermarket. Someone approached our grand commander and asked him where the money went. “It goes to help the mentally disabled,” he explained.

“I believe in helping the mentally disabled,” the individual replied. “Line them up against a wall and I’ll grab my shotgun.”

Such is the pessimism of those who succumb to the culture of death. Involuntary euthanasia is viewed as a favour, rather than an atrocity. Gone is the laughter of God’s special children, the twinkle of their smiles and the unconditional love of their hugs. For these pleasures cannot easily be quantified in a society obsessed by utility and function.

Thankfully, Terri’s parents will continue experiencing these pleasures, as they choose to embrace the culture of life.

Pete Vere is a canon lawyer and a supreme vizier of the International Order of Alhambra. Canadian by birth, he writes from Florida, where he lives with his wife and two infant daughters.