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  Terri's Brother Fights For Sister's Life

by Margaret Zagroba | Vice President, Princeton Pro-Life

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PRINCETON, New Jersey | Bobby Schindler loves his sister Terri Schiavo and has been fighting for her life for many years. But what was equally striking about his recent talk on March 2nd here at Princeton University is how much he cares about the future of mankind.

Both Mr. Schindler and Professor Chris Tollefson, a visiting fellow with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, emphasized that what is at stake in Terri's case is not only her life, but the way American law defines a human person.

Terri Schindler Schiavo is at the center of controversy in Florida as her family fights to prevent her husband from starving her to death.  A Florida judge has ruled that Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo (who lives with, and has had two children with another woman), is her sole guardian, and has the legal authority to remove hydration and nutrition from Terri.  The court has ordered that Terri is no longer to be given food or water starting at 1:00 p.m. on March 18th.

Mr. Schindler spoke at the invitation of Princeton Pro-Life and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students and shared the podium with Prof. Tollefson, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. The talk was titled "Euthanasia, Judicial Homicide, and Terri Schiavo."

I was deeply moved by the event.  As a Roman Catholic, I was very disturbed to hear of the apparent indifference of Mr. Schindler's local diocese, whose bishop has not spoken out strongly for Terri, her parents, and her brother, all of them Catholic.

I also realized the extent to which mainstream media has distorted the issue. I had previously been under the impression that Terri was in a coma with no hope of coming out, when in fact she shows great potential for possible recovery if given the proper care. 

As I listened, I thought of my own grandfather, who is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease, and wonder if some day others will be able to decide if people like him don't have lives that are worth living.  Though Princeton Pro-Life has typically focused on abortion, Mr. Schindler's talk made me realize that we also need to make the campus aware of the issue of euthanasia. 

About two hundred students, faculty and visitors heard Mr. Schindler deliver a piercing indictment of his sister’s treatment at the hands of her husband and guardian and the legal system in Florida.

"What we are witnessing is a judicial homicide, an execution at the hands of the state," Mr. Schindler told the audience. "If Terri had committed a capital crime, she would have more rights than she does under our current system." 

Professor Tollefsen explained how the philosophical arguments for euthanasia are wrong, linking support of euthanasia with a faulty understanding of the human person.

Tollefsen, an associate professor moral philosophy at the University of South Carolina, identified three grounds used by proponents to justify euthanasia. First, there is the emotional appeal of seeing a person in great pain, and the consequent desire to want to relieve their suffering. Second, there is the fact that, unlike abortion, euthanasia is typically (though not always) done with the patient’s consent. Third, people who practice euthanasia take advantage of a faulty distinction between actively killing someone and merely "letting them die."

Underlying all these arguments, however, is the implicit assumption that human life is not intrinsically valuable, but is only worthy insofar as it helps one achieve some other goal, such as happiness. This is dualistic: it thinks of the person as wholly abstracted from the body that he inhabits. If this dualism is true, it means the immaterial person can do anything he wants with his body, including destroy it through euthanasia. If, however, the person is a psychosomatic unity, then human life is an intrinsic good, and it is always morally wrong to end an innocent human life, even if the life is one’s own.

Schindler began his presentation with a moving video chronicling Terri’s life and the legal battles he and his family have faced since Terri’s collapse in 1990. He related how Terri’s husband Michael Schiavo has systematically neglected his wife, and refused to give her the proper medical care she needs.

Her family must get permission from the local police before they can even visit her. They are not permitted to bring flowers into her room, or play her favorite music. When a priest tried to administer Holy Communion to Terri, Mr. Schiavo reprimanded him and threatened him with arrest. Terri’s family wants nothing more that to take Terri home and care for her, but since her husband has full custody, they are powerless.

Mr. Schiavo’s case is based on the flimsiest of evidence. He claims that Terri once related verbally to him that she would not want to live if she was incapacitated and put on a feeding tube. Despite the fact that this is hearsay, and that Terri never expressed such a wish to any of her own family, a Florida determined that Mr. Schiavo’s testimony alone was enough to send Terri to her death through the removal of her feeding tube.

Even though Terri’s story is deeply powerful, Mr. Schindler did not just dwell on his personal story, but explored the implications for society at large. He said, "Our society has moved from a culture that values sanctity of life to one that values quality of life."

Slowly and insidiously, the idea has crept into the American mindset that the value of some peoples’ lives don’t outweigh the costs, and that these lives can be terminated at the will of another.

Mr. Schindler’s story brought home the point that this case is about far more than his sister’s life, as important as her life is. Her murder would set both a legal and a cultural precedent that human life is to be valued for its utility rather than its intrinsic worth, and would further establish what John Paul II has often called a "Culture of Death." Almost everyone has a friend or relative who is either disabled, or suffering from disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Will a court be able one day in the near future to decide whether our loved ones can live or die–despite our beliefs and wishes?

The audience was clearly deeply moved by Mr. Schindler’s story, and one of the first questions asked after the talk was, "How can we help Terri’s cause?" Mr. Schindler encouraged us to contact our congressional representatives and lawmakers, and expressed gratitude for the recent outpouring of support for his cause, coming recently from even the Vatican itself.

Currently the date set for removal of Terri’s feeding tube is March 18, and the Schindler family has six legal appeals pending in a final attempt to save her. There is legislation pending in both Congress and the Florida State legislature that would be able to save Terri, if they are passed in time.

The entire evening was a compelling witness for the pro-life cause. Mr. Schindler presented a powerful emotional appeal. Mr. Tollefsen reminded the audience, however, that the emotional objections to euthanasia are insufficient, but that euthanasia must and can be shown to be wrong on a completely rational and rigorous philosophical level. He also noted that many pro-lifers are far more passionate about ending abortion than euthanasia, but that it is essential for our cause to defend human life at all stages, including at the end of life.

Audience members left with a clearer understanding of the moral objections to euthanasia, a better knowledge of the Schiavo case, which has often been distorted by a biased media, and renewed awareness of the importance of defending human life, especially of the most innocent and defenseless.

Photo link: Bobby Schindler speaks about his family's battle to save his sister.

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