from the November 2004 issue of Catholic
At first glance, the case of Terri Schiavo seemed like those situations of family conflict I had seen before. But the more I read, and the more I dug, the more I saw that Terri's case was not typical. Among other things, I discovered that:
Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, at the time he began seeking to end Terri's life, stood to gain financially by her death, as he would inherit her $800,000 medical settlement fund.
The diagnosis that Terri was in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) was hotly contested by doctors who specialized in treating brain injuries.
Terri's husband only raised his contention that she had expressed the desire to "no longer go on living" if she became incapacitated several years after her injury. Furthermore, his only corroboration came from his own brother and his sister-in-law. Finally, the judge in most of Terri's court proceedings, George Greer, had violated civil trial procedure in allowing Michael's contention into evidence in the first place.
Not only was the judgment that Terri would "certainly not recover" contradicted by doctors who advocated therapies approved as "medically necessary" by federal officials at Medicare, but Terri had in fact received no therapy whatsoever since approximately a year after her injury.
The strange and suspicious circumstances of the injury that caused her brain injury have never been investigated by authorities.
All of these facts, and the many others I learned, convinced me that this was no ordinary family dispute, and that Terri's case was of tremendous importance beyond her family and even beyond the boundaries of the state of Florida. Terri Schiavo has become the center, the focal point of a struggle between the powerful forces that seek to extend euthanasia and the so-called "right to die" and those within our society who seek to uphold and preserve the dignity of human life.
It became clear to me that an outrage was being perpetrated in Florida, an outrage undiminished by the fact that it was wrapped in the trappings of legality. I began writing about Terri on my weblog "Thrown Back", joining the ranks of fellow Catholic bloggers such as Amy Welborn who were spreading the word about Terri's plight. We hoped to get someone to listen, someone to come to the aid of the Schindler family in saving Terri's life.
NO VISITS FROM A PRIEST
Last September, Judge Greer ordered that Terri's feeding tube be removed on October 15. He did so in spite of pleas to consider new evidence, citing reluctance to "allow any action which would appear to 're-litigate' the case." Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, protested the October 15 date as not being soon enough, saying it would give the Schindlers time to submit "'frivolous' court pleadings aimed at keeping their daughter alive." During the days leading up to the removal of Terri's feeding tube, supporters of Terri and the Schindlers began keeping vigil outside Woodside Hospice of Pinellas Park, Florida, where Terri was being kept. The Schindlers rented a small recreational vehicle (RV), and a favorably disposed business owner allowed them to park it in the lot across the street from the hospice. This became "headquarters" for the fight to save Terri's life.
The priest who had been most supportive of the Schindlers, Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, was often there leading prayers and offering spiritual guidance to the Schindlers. But a few days before Terri's feeding tube was to be removed, Michael Schiavo suddenly stripped Msgr. Malanowski of his privileges to visit Terri. Michael stated that he was "he was concerned about Malanowski's integrity and did not think he was the kind of person he wanted visiting Terri." As guardian, Michael had complete control over who would be allowed to visit Terri, and Judge Greer backed up Michael's decision, saying that since Terri was no longer at the hospital there was no emergency. Pat Anderson, attorney for Bob and Mary Schindler, repeatedly asked Judge Greer to reinstate Msgr. Malanowski's visitation rights, but the judge rejected every request.
This development filled me with outrage. I had never heard of a patient being denied pastoral care before. I can't even imagine the kind of hardness of heart required to take such a position; even condemned criminals are given access to clergy! But Terri Schiavo, who was guilty of no crime, was denied something we commonly provide to the most heinous of criminals. It seemed to me that Judge Greer had decided that Terri was so sub-human that she could be denied even spiritual comfort and consolation. I wrote at the time:
"As a priest, I cannot imagine being in Msgr. Malanowski's position. I simply could not stand for such interference with my ministry. I would be inclined to seek every means possible to disobey the order and visit Terri. An unjust law is no law at all. Similarly, a capricious, inhuman, unjust, and gratuitous judge's order is no order at all."
There is a longstanding tradition in the Church of defying Caesar when he trespasses beyond his rightful authority. There is a well-established tradition of resisting Caesar when he attempts to deprive the Church of her legitimate prerogatives. And so, I reiterate the suggestion I made a couple of weeks ago: It is time to consider civil disobedience.
It seemed to me that this deprivation of Terri's right
to spiritual care was the final indignity. If this wasn't sufficient motivation
to condemn Terri's treatment and mobilize opposition, nothing would be.
When Terri's feeding tube was removed on October 15, the vigils, protests, and prayers for Terri increased dramatically. Hundreds of people could be found at the Woodside Hospice at all hours of the day and night. Msgr. Malanowski was there 14 to 16 hours a day, offering leadership and support. At around that time, some of Terri's supporters began contacting me, asking if I could come down to Florida to be of assistance. Independently of their request, National Review Online columnist Rod Dreher offered to pitch in $100 to pay my expenses to Florida, and encouraged others to do so. Within a day or so, I had dozens of people volunteering to help pay my way to Florida to go down and help the Schindlers. I've always been reluctant to read "the hand of God" into events as they happen, but I had seen Providence at work in my life enough to begin to sense that something of the sort might be going on here. But I resolved that if I were to go, it would have to be clear to me that the impetus was coming from beyond me. Moreover, it wasn't clear to me at all what I could do if I went down there. So I told Rod Dreher and others that in order for me to go, three conditions would have to be met:
1. The Schindler family would have to ask me to come. I did not want to intrude as an interloper into a difficult family crisis. 2. My own bishop would have to give permission for me to go. 3. I would have to obtain coverage for my parish. This was especially critical as my pastor was then away on vacation, and I could not leave my parish uncovered.
Within 24 hours of laying down these conditions, I received a phone call from Catholic writer and canon lawyer Peter Vere. Peter was already in Florida with the Schindlers and the vigil-keepers. I was surprised when he put Bob Schindler on the phone, and Terri's father proceeded in short order to ask me if I could come down. "We could use your help, Father," he said. Msgr. Malanowski then came on the phone and said much the same thing. I called my bishop's office and made an appointment to see him the next day. My bishop, James Murray of Kalamazoo, graciously gave his permission for me to go. He had followed Terri's case and was sympathetic to the Schindlers. He felt that since the family had asked for my help that I ought to go. Shortly thereafter I spoke with the chancellor of my diocese, and we arranged for a priest to cover my parish while I was away.
I thought: "OK, here I go," but wasn't sure what I was
getting myself into.
A couple of days before I arrived, Michael Schiavo lifted his ban on Msgr. Malanowski's pastoral visits. So at least if Terri was going to die, she would not do so bereft of spiritual care. On the day I arrived in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush signed "Terri's Law," and intervened to order her feeding tube restored. However, husband Michael and attorney George Felos went to court seeking an injunction against the law. So Terri wasn't safe yet.
Msgr. Malanowski was the first person I met when I arrived
in Clearwater. I was immediately impressed. A priest of the diocese of
Norwich, Connecticut, he served as an Army chaplain for 30 years, and
rose to the rank of general. On his retirement he moved to Clearwater,
and it was then that he became acquainted with the Schindlers. On two
occasions, at St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch's request, Msgr. Malanowski
had temporarily taken over the care of parishes whose pastors had to be
removed because of sexual misconduct. He was more active as a retired
priest at age 81 than some pastors I knew who were half his age. He had
been at the Schindlers' side in their struggle for many years, and knew
the family intimately. He filled me in on a lot of the background of Terri's
story, and shared a lot of information with me that wasn't public knowledge.
Msgr. Malanowski explained that he would place only the smallest particle of the host on Terri's tongue, and that this action could not possibly present any medical danger. But the "minder" was unmoved. Msgr. Malanowski asked the police what would happen if he gave Communion to Terri despite her opposition. They replied that they would arrest him. He responded, "So go ahead and lock me up."
Msgr. Malanowski later told me that he was not worried about going to jail himself, and that since he knew that I was on my way, a priest would still be there to minister to the Schindlers even if he was locked up. But then the police officers added that they would physically prevent him, if necessary, from giving Communion to Terri. It was only the certitude that he would fail that dissuaded him, not the prospect of being arrested.
Bob Schindler told me that, in that incident, he had seen
a side of Msgr. Malanowski that he'd never seen before, and told me how
he felt "unworthy" of the friendship and support he had received for so
long from such a good and holy priest. Having met him, and in spending
a week with him, I soon saw why Bob felt that way, and why Mary refers
to Msgr. Malanowski as "my strength and support."
I met Bob and Mary Schindler for the first time the morning after I arrived in Florida. I went down with Msgr. Malanowski to the hospice, and the RV that had become the headquarters of the effort to save Terri. I wasn't sure what to expect before I met them. I had spoken to Bob on the phone a couple of times, and the main impression I received was that he was very tired. But then, what father wouldn't be exhausted by the experience of watching his daughter die?
One of the things that struck me immediately is how levelheaded, reasonable, and calm the Schindlers are. That might seem a strange thing to say, but I was half-expecting to meet people who had been rendered emotional wrecks by the weeklong ordeal of watching their daughter dying. It wouldn't have surprised me to encounter that. They had also been portrayed-by Michael and his attorneys and by unsympathetic media-as everything from religious fanatics to pathetic simpletons. But they weren't, and aren't. They are very normal, solid people. They have been represented as people in denial of their daughter's sad state, blinded by their emotional attachment to her. But that is simply not the case. They are quite realistic about Terri's condition: she is severely brain damaged, and will probably never come close to a full recovery. As Mary Schindler said to me, "I'm not looking for her get up and start doing a dance. But everyone deserves a chance, and she hasn't had it." The "chance" to which Mary Schindler refers is that of having proper rehabilitation therapy. Many people are under the impression that all avenues of treatment for Terri have been exhausted, but that is far from the case. In fact, Terri has had no therapy whatsoever for over 11 years, and many promising approaches have never been attempted. Michael Schiavo, as Terri's guardian, has complete control over her medical care, and has steadfastly refused any rehabilitation therapy since he won Terri's medical malpractice settlement in 1993.
Bob and Mary regard this failure to provide therapy as something of a betrayal by Michael. In response to Michael's assertions on the Larry King Live program last fall, the Schindlers explained to me that Michael promised to use Terri's settlement money for rehabilitation. He did so repeatedly in court, during Terri's malpractice case. When Michael received the settlement money (approximately $900,000), Bob said, "I tried to remind him of his promise." It was a promise, Mary added, that Michael had made under oath. This promise may not be legally binding, but the Schindlers certainly regard it as morally binding. But an argument ensued between Michael and the Schindlers, and Michael vowed to retain a lawyer. About a month after this incident, the Schindlers were informed that Michael had cut off their access to Terri's medical information, and that Michael had issued a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order for Terri. When people imply that the Schindlers do not have a realistic view of their daughter's prognosis, Bob is inclined to grow impatient. In response to such suggestions, Bob says:
Don't ask me [about Terri's prognosis], ask the 14 doctors who've filed affidavits with the court saying that she can recover if she's given proper therapy. Patients in worse shape than her, like that Kate Adamson [who recovered after being diagnosed as PVS] have recovered. They act like we're blinded, but we have opinions from all these doctors which point to one thing: Terri could recover if she were given the right therapy.
Mary Schindler reiterated that the parents do not expect
a full recovery. They recognize that Terri has severe brain damage. But,
Mary said, "even if she could come back a little," Terri should have that
Bob, Mary, and the rest of her family see that the person they know and love as Terri is still there. The day after I arrived, the Schindlers held a news conference, at which they arranged for a number of family members, and several doctors and nurses, to give statements about their firsthand experience of Terri's awareness and responsiveness. They all explained that, far from being a "vegetable," Terri responds to her environment, and to those who visit her. The significant fact is that she is responsive to those around her in distinctive ways: she responds to different people differently. All three doctors present testified definitively and convincingly that Terri is not in a "Persistent Vegetative State." This is perhaps the point that the Schindlers have been working the hardest to get across. The experience of seeing them present their position, and the media's subsequent coverage of it, was an object lesson in media bias at work.
Not that the coverage was all bad. Some of the media reports
were very fair and accurate. The Schindlers aren't looking for fawningly
sympathetic coverage, but they would like what they say to be accurately
presented and not ignored. I was most impressed by the local "Bay News
9" coverage. They included in their report a substantial quote from one
of the doctors at the press conference, who said that in his medical judgment
Terri was not in a "persistent vegetative state." The CBS affiliate also
did a decent job. The worst coverage was by the local NBC affiliate, Channel
8. They showed footage of one of Terri's doctors explaining her brain
scans-but with the anchor's voice-over comments, not the doctor's words
themselves. The anchor concluded with the observation that the doctor's
treatments were not recognized by a particular association of disability
physicians. He failed to mention that the effectiveness of his treatments
had been recognized by the Florida Board of Medicine and Medicare.
Read Part 2 of "My Journey With The Schindlers"
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