Monday, March 31, 2014

Saving Terri Schiavo: Florida, March 2005

Nine years ago today, Terri Schiavo died at a hospice in Florida. I was a matter of only yards away when it happened.  I dedicate this posting to Terri.

Published in The Telegram, April 2005                    

On Tuesday March 29, 2005 I traveled to Pinellas Park in Florida to stand with others in proclaiming the unjust and immoral killing of Terri Schiavo, a 41 year old woman whose only crime was that she was a disabled person. Less than 24 hours before the airplane left St John’s for Florida I had been experiencing a troubling day but I wasn’t sure why. Just after supper that day I realized that I was much more concerned about Terri’s plight than I had realized. After two weeks or more listening to and watching the in depth media coverage and my own intense inquiries into her circumstances for more than a month, I think it had gradually, and subtly, forced me to a point of decision. Was I just going to let the tragedy happen, let it continue without a murmur? What could I do anyway?  She could die before I even get there, I thought. I’ve left it so late, too late to do anything. And who am I, a Canadian, so far away? As my evening progressed from this point of climax I spent several hours thinking to find a reason not to bring a drink of water to Terri in Florida. But I could find no good reason not to go, no good reason to allow a great travesty of justice to continue without lifting a finger. It was obvious that the countless prayers of thousands of people had not prevailed and my continued silence would accomplish nothing as well. Terri was being starved to death, and all the world was doing was watching. How could this be happening? The whole world seemed powerless to stop it. Well perhaps if I went maybe thousands of others from all other parts of the world would join me in doing the same thing. Maybe that’s how Terri was to be rescued I thought.

What turned the tables irrevocably and finalized my decision that evening to go to Florida was my discovery of the call from the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, which went out into the entire world in 1995 in the form of his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae.” In it he said: “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.” He made it clear in his address that Catholics have a moral obligation to actively resist and disobey unjust laws. And the Church had spoken many times very clearly on behalf of Terri Schaivo. The withdrawal of food and water is “an unjust condemnation to death of an innocent person by one of the most inhumane and cruel forms that exist, that of starvation.” Pointing to the questions and doubts surrounding Terri’s medical condition, Cardinal Martino said, it is a murder which one cannot take part in without become an accomplice.” I was not going to be an accomplice….I fully intended to take a drink of water to Florida directly to Terri Schiavo to alleviate her pain and suffering, or get arrested by police trying to do so.

I arrived in Florida just after noon hour the next day, and within a couple of hours I found myself walking towards the hospice where Terri’s execution was taking place. The first obvious signs of unusual activity were flashing lights from a distance and then an abundance of police activity…sheriffs and officers everywhere, on the sidewalks  and on the street, controlling traffic access to the area approaching the hospice…questioning drivers, checking the interiors and trunks of vehicles. It was like a terrorist zone, except they weren’t keeping the pedestrians away. I was free to follow the sidewalk directly to the hospice entrance, where police cars blocked the entrance and seemed to fill the entire parking lot of the hospice. About 50 meters from the sidewalk was the actual entrance door to the hospice. Again, there were police officers everywhere, along the property perimeter, at every point of access to the hospice. On the green lawn spaces directly in front of hospice property, between sidewalk and street, were fenced off areas where protestors were gathered in various ways or standing with their signs, posters, pictures, and other forms of messages. Some were talking about the latest news regarding Terri….which seemed to come in a constant stream, sometimes small details sometimes exciting stories.  Many were praying, singing and reading scripture. Some were catching a nap on a lawn chair under an umbrella. One or two had been beating a small drum non-stop for days maybe weeks, at about human heart rate, eerily signifying that Terri’s heart was still beating. Directly across the street from the protestors and the police was a huge community of media crews, with their trailers, tents and satellite towers shooting up about 7 or 8 stories high into the air. Every time there was a story in the air, the entire community would come to life, with reporters and camera men scurrying around at break neck speed to catch and report the story to the world.

It’s difficult to describe the impact of all this activity on someone who had never before been a part of such a wide scale, intense passionate protest. Perhaps my first thought was that it was pointless to think that crossing the “line” and getting arrested for bringing my 500ml bottle of Canadian water to Terri was going to make any significant impact on the situation, particularly the effort to rescue her. I had discovered very early that first day that a total of almost 50 people had been similarly arrested up to that point. Maybe some day in retrospect I will wish that I had proceeded directly, without further thought and analysis, to the hospice entrance with Terri’s drink and found myself shortly thereafter in a Florida jail. After all, if everyone had done something as similar or radical as that, wouldn’t that have maybe stirred the nation out of apathy and indifference and led to Terri’s rescue?

There were three main grassy areas in front of the hospice where protesters were gathered. I tended to stay mostly in the area with fellow Catholics who were praying more or less constantly day and night. I was able to meet and to speak with Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski, Terri’s family priest for the last 5 or more years who was seeing Terri daily, giving updates and encouragement to those who gathered and prayed, and who also arranged to celebrate daily mass right on location. I talked to quite a few people from different areas and a great many, perhaps even a majority, were individuals or couples (at great personal expense and inconvenience) who had traveled from all parts of America (a handful from Canada too!) out of extreme conviction and urgency to speak and to protest in some way on Terri’s behalf. There were other small groups present as well, at least two or three representing disabled persons, and who had brought along severely disabled friends and relatives to protest the starvation of a innocent disabled woman with whom they identified.  Quite honestly I was shocked at how few people were really there to protest what was happening. In fact I would say without fear of being refuted that there were more reporters and police there than protesters. I don’t think at any time I was there I saw more than 200-300 people gathered at once who had come to defend Terri. This to me was unbelievable!! Out of all America, a country of approx. 350 million or more and out of all Canada, with 30 million or more, only a few hundred persons had come to raise their voices. And yet what a noise was heard throughout the world! Imagine if the number had been a thousand, or two thousand or ten thousand! Terri surely would have been saved. Was that asking too much? Where was everyone who said they were concerned? Honestly, it was a heartbreaking experience facing the truth of what was happening.

And then, as quickly as I had arrived, it was all over! Two days later Terri died and once again it was a heartbreaking experience, an outpouring of grief and loss among those who had gone the distance for Terri, with many weeping and trembling souls overtaken also by the shock, disappointment, and betrayal of it all. This was the solemn conclusion to the long battle that the Schindler family had fought to save the life of their daughter Terri.

I realize that a significant number of people will protest about my protest. They see the Terri Schaivo case as simply a personal family matter that everybody else should have simply butted out of. Or they maintain quite simply that it was better to pull the plug and let Terri die because they would want the same thing done to them. They see it as a “quality of life” issue. But to me these arguments only add to the sense of confusion I saw in many people surrounding me those few days outside Terri’s hospice. I heard the voices of concerned persons who were aiming their protest at Michael Schaivo, or at his attorney George Felos, angered by what they believed to be their heartlessness, treachery and hidden agendas. And there were a hundred legitimate reasons to be concerned about just that.  Other concerned Americans who were there focused on the courts as the problem, and saw ‘wicked’ judges as the downfall of Terri, along with the failure of political parties.  

I’m afraid at what I saw in Florida. It was the ugly, subtle, and sinister face of a new ‘culture of death’ overtaking our minds and hearts. Terri was a fellow North American, a fellow human being with special needs. So much information has been disseminated yet it masks the simple truth and overpowers us. I shouldn’t have to, but I remind myself that Terri was not comatose before the killing began, was not on a respirator, and was not unaware of her circumstances. She smiled faintly, she followed people and objects with her eyes and according to the registered nurse who had cared for her, she succeeded in saying a few words. She was a healthy disabled woman who was not terminally ill.

Yet we allowed an estranged husband to insist upon her execution. We allowed a ‘justice’ system to sanction and enforce the execution. We allowed ‘society’ to redefine the essence of our humanity. We said we can measure ourselves by our perceived productivity, by our potential contribution to society. We said that our quality of life can be judged as unworthy of quantity of life. For a number of years now we have been adjusting our thinking of the designation and termination of new life simply in terms of "choice." We have been routinely make judgments about which lives are worth living and which are not. We have declared who is a "burden" at birth, and now it is becoming much easier to decide the nature of "burden" when a "loved one" is dying.

Did Terri’s disability and medical condition negate her essential dignity as a human person? Did Terri’s disability and medical condition limit her fundamental right to life? Was her ‘right’ to a ‘dignified death’ simply another expedient euphemism for her murder? Wasn’t Terri’s dignity (as well as yours and mine) untouchable? After all, isn’t it a gift from God?   I defer once again to the Holy Father, the late John Paul II, whom so many of us praise and admire, yet whom so few of us have the courage to imitate. For him, euthanasia was neither a matter of personal choice nor a matter of private morality. “The value of a man's life cannot be made subordinate to any judgment of its quality expressed by other men. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.”

My visit to Florida left me with an even stronger conviction to be bolder in discovering, declaring and defending the truth about the wonder and beauty of life, in all its stages. God help each one of us to do our utmost in this regard or face the consequences of a moral catastrophe that will exceed anything we have yet experienced in this generation or previous generations. Questions and concerns raised by Terri’s death move closer and closer to our own doorstep. Soon it will be too late to speak or act.

Eric Alcock
Paradise, NL


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