I keep hearing on the news the poll question, "Who should decide if Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed?" The choices are the spouse, the parents, the courts, etc. I think this is the wrong question.
The Terri Schiavo case is being lumped in with some very different cases. As we who support protecting Terri's life consider these things, we often, (and I include myself in this), find ourselves disputing the facts of the case. I'm not saying that shouldn't be done, as the facts are very questionable. But we also need to stand back and see the big picture.
I've mentioned before that my grandmother could not be fed in her last dying days. A stroke left her unable to swallow. An infection had taken grip at the site of her feeding tube. Every time an IV was attempted, her diabetes-ravaged veins collapsed. Diabetes. Heart attacks. Strokes. Cancer. Gramma had survived so much, but clearly, this was the time of her end. As agonizing as these decisions are, families do have to decide at some point when it is no longer possible to do good for a patient. We need to recognize that God is calling this person home, and the best we can do is offer what comfort we can.
Curtis Neeley shared his story with us. In many ways his situation was much like my grandmother's. He had been in an automobile accident. His injuries were severe and he appeared to be a man who could not survive. He was dying. Or so it seemed. When his wife made the decision to stop ventilating him, he feels, and I agree, that she made a reasonable and loving decision. In our human frailty we are still sometimes bound to make such decisions and sometimes, as in Curtis's case, they may have to be based on imperfect information that may later prove to be wrong. Curtis was able to communicate enough to correct the error in time and his life was spared. In other cases that may not have happened. We have to do the best we can and trust God in these things.
Terri Schiavo's case, however, is not like Gramma's and not like Curtis Neeley's in one very important way. Terri Schiavo is not dying. There is no question whether or not Terri will live out the night or the month or the decade because of the injuries she suffers under. Her life is as stable as mine. In fact, she may very well be healthier than I am in many ways, though she also suffers from muscle cramping and atrophy, severe tooth decay, and other such ailments because of the neglect of routine care.
No one has suggested that Terri should be "allowed to die" because she is dying anyway. What is being suggested is that she should be caused to die because her life is not worth living. "I wouldn't want to live that way," people are fond of saying. Well, thanks for sharing, but that's not really the point, is it? What if I decided that I wouldn't want to live as a diabetic with all the challenges that disease presents. Does that then justify me killing a diabetic child or spouse? Dare I argue that to suggest otherwise is to interfere with "a personal family decision?"
Terri Schiavo is a very disabled woman. As much as we wish to accurately reflect her condition and refute those who make it out to be worse than it seems to be, we must still acknowledge that hers is a life that many people might not want to live. As with many of life's trials we often think we could not endure them, until God thrusts them upon us and also gives the strength and endurance we need. I probably said or would have said at one time that I would rather die than to endure the death of one of my children. Yet two of my children are dead and I endure and live and thrive with a strength that is not my own, but God's.
Terri's situation is important, not only because of her precious life, but also because her case takes our country a step over an important line. That is the line between avoiding fruitless efforts to save a dying person and withdrawing efforts to sustain a person who is not dying, on the basis of our assessment of his or her "quality of life." The truth is, many people are killed because someone decides their life would not be worth living. It happens to disabled newborn babies all the time. It happens to disabled children and adults. The difference in Terri's case is that it is happening in full public view.
There is at least some hope for our culture when so many people, even if they do not ultimately prevail, have stood up to defend Terri's life. That willingness to stand is also crossing other cultural barriers that divide us. I, an Evangelical Christian, stand with Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as people of other faiths or no faith at all. Democrats and Republicans have spoken out for Terri. Advocates for the disabled who can't be described as right-wing or pro-life have pleaded Terri's cause.
The question, then, is not "Who should decide?" The question is whether or not, in a case like Terri's, there is any decision to be made. Is it really going to be, (or should I say, remain), legal for anyone to decide that the life of another person is not worth living and ought to be terminated?
Is it? That's the real question.