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  Vatican, Gibson Join Fight for Terri's Life: A Summary of Recent Events

By Valerie Schmalz | Updated March 15, 2005

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Demonstrating an unusual willingness to intervene in U.S. affairs, the Vatican for the third time in three weeks is speaking out for the life of Terri Schiavo, saying removal of her feeding tube would be "direct euthanasia."

ZENIT reported on Sunday, March 13th, that the Pontifical Academy of Life has appealed for the life of the 41-year-old brain damaged Florida woman. At the request of Michael Schiavo, her husband and legal guardian, a Pinellas County, Florida circuit court judge ordered Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube removed on March 18th. Numerous appeals by her family to let them take over her care have been rejected although a number of actions are underway, including a bill before the U.S. Congress and another one before the Florida legislature.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Academy for Life, in explaining why the Holy See is speaking out in favor of Schiavo, said Saturday on Vatican Radio that her "case goes beyond the individual situation because of its exemplary character and the importance that the media have rightly attributed to it," Zenit reports today. "Silence in this case might be interpreted as approval, with consequences that would go well beyond the specific case," he said. "From all worthy accounts, Schiavo may be considered a living human person, deprived of full consciousness, whose juridical rights must be recognized, respected, and defended," the president of the pontifical academy said.

"The removal of the gastric feeding tube from this person, in these conditions, may be considered direct euthanasia," added the bishop. Removing the tube would create a precedent and "would present euthanasia in reality as a right before the courts of the United States," with consequences in the U.S. and elsewhere, Bishop Sgreccia said.

Over the weekend of March 12-13, Inside the Vatican magazine reported that "Mr. Robert Schindler the father of Terri Schiavo spoke to Mel Gibson on the afternoon of Friday March 11 2005.

The report stated: "The film star and director/producer of The Passion of the Christ has released a statement to the March 12, 2005 Rally organizers in Florida on behalf of Terri Schiavo as follows: 'I fully support the efforts of Mr. & Mrs. Schindler to save their daughter, Terri Schiavo, from a cruel starvation. Terri's husband should sign the care of his wife over to her parents so she can be properly cared for.'"

In additon to Gibson, countless people around the United States and even around the globe are weighing in to save Terri Schiavo from a March 18th date with starvation.

Within the Catholic Church, cardinals and bishops from Rome to Baltimore to Tallahasee have decried the pending removal of the 41-year-old disabled Florida woman’s feeding tube. Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life started a novena for Terri Schiavo and urged Americans to write their Congressional representatives in support of legislation pending in Washington, D.C. and in Tallahasee, Fla.

Cardinal William Keeler, chairman for the U.S. Bishops Committee for Pro-Life Activity, said on March 9th that it was "morally obligatory" to provide food and water to Terri Schiavo.

"The case of Terri Schindler Schiavo in Florida," wrote Cardinal Keeler, "has focused national attention on the plight of patients diagnosed as being in a 'vegetative' state." However, it has been argued by Terri's parents and supporters for Terri Schiavo that she is not, in fact, in a vegetative state, but a minimally conscious state.

Cardinal Keeler's statement followed a March 7th statement by the Vatican’s Cardinal Renato Martino, the second in two weeks by the president of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome: "How can anyone who claims to speak of the promotion and protection of human rights–of human life–remain silent? Is this not a question of the right to life? I believe that I must speak out about this in the same way that I would speak of the protection of the unborn and just as I would concerning any injustice."

On Feb. 28th, the eight Florida bishops issued a statement supporting Terri Schiavo’s right to life. That statement said, in part: " No longer able to speak on her own behalf, Mrs. Schiavo is a defenseless human being with inherent dignity, deserving of our respect, care and concern.  Her plight dramatizes one of the most critical questions we face:  To be a truly human society, how should we care for those we may not be able to cure?"

On that same day, St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch issued a separate and somewhat contradictory statement while at the same time signing the letter from the Florida Catholic Conference. Bishop Lynch wrote: " Normally, at the end of life, families of the person in extremis agree that it is time to allow the Lord to call a loved one to Himself, feeling that they have done all they possibly might to provide alternatives to death, every possible treatment protocol which might be helpful has been attempted. There is a peace. This will not happen in this instance because of the seeming intractability of both sides."

With little more than a week to go before Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge George Greer’s judicial order will take effect, both Florida state lawmakers and U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at blocking the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube.

In Congress, the Incapacitated Persons Legal Protection Act introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon on March 8th had more than a hundred co-sponsors. It would allow Terri Schiavo to qualify for habeas corpus protection, the same protection afforded death row inmates, which would move her case into federal court for a hearing.

Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez introduced similar legislation in the Senate and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office told the St. Petersburg Times that Frist would attempt to fast track the bill to the Senate floor for a vote without any committee hearings.

The House version is scheduled for a Judiciary Committee hearing on March 16th. At least ten disability rights groups support the legislation, according to Not Dead Yet, an organization of disabled people opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In the Florida legislature, a bill (HB 701 in the House and SB 2128 in the state Senate) would block removal of feeding tubes from incapacitated persons unless they had specifically requested via a living will. The bill had cleared one committee and was the subject of extensive debate in the legislature.

While Judge Greer rejected a Florida Department of Children and Family Services request for a sixty-day stay to review abuse allegations, a department spokesman said March 10th that the department is reviewing its options. The St. Petersburg Times reported that Gov. Jeb Bush was disappointed by Greer's ruling, saying, "I don't know how DCF can't be involved. There's a law that says if the hot line is called and there's a warranted need for an investigation that there ought be an investigation."

Meanwhile, on March 11th Michael Schiavo rejected a cable television millionaire and stem cell supporter’s offer of $1 million if he transferred guardianship to her parents.

In commenting on the decision by Mr. Schiavo, the Schindlers said in a March 11th statement that they were not surprised. "After he has denied Terri therapy for so many years and denied our family any opportunity to help her," the Schindlers said "we can only come to the conclusion that he is not comfortable with the prospects of her regaining her abilities to speak and communicate to us the reasons for her collapse."

Related Links:

• John Paul II on "Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas"
The Case of Terri Schiavo: When Does Dignity End? | By Fr. Michael Black
The Battle Over Terri | Valerie Schmalz
DCF's Schiavo Petition Unsealed | The Tampa Tribune (Friday, March 4, 2005)
Terri's Brother Fights For Sister's Life | by Margaret Zagroba | Vice President, Princeton Pro-Life. Saturday, March 5, 2005.

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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