Schiavo case puts human dignity on trial

Douglas R. Groothuis

Dr. Groothuis is associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity Press) and four other books, including Unmasking the New Age: Is There a New Religious Movement Trying to Transform Society? and Confronting the New Age. He has written many scholarly articles and his observations on religion and culture have been quoted in Time, The New York Times and US News and World Report.  Groothuis's primary passion is to make Christian truth known in contemporary culture and in the church. To that end, he speaks at many colleges and universities on apologetics and ethical themes.

In a hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., lives a young woman who is quite alive, yet quite unlike most of you reading these words. Since 1990, she has not been able to swallow or to communicate as most of us do.

However, she smiles and cries, kisses her parents and utters a few simple words. She is not on life support. She receives nutrition through a tube instead of chewing and swallowing. She is not in a coma. She is not in a persistent vegetative state as defined by Florida law.

She is much loved by her loyal parents and other relatives. She is a living human being, one who needs more care than most, but a human being nonetheless. (According to her parents, she left no instructions on how she would want to be treated in such a situation and does not now want to die.)

Yet Michael Schiavo wants his wife, Terri, dead. After winning a considerable amount of money through malpractice lawsuits, Schiavo did not invest the money in his injured wife's rehabilitation, as he had promised.

Instead, he paid lawyers to have her feeding tube removed and so kill her by the slow and awful death of starvation. If his plan succeeds, Michael Schiavo will finally have his way with a wife he long ago abandoned. He now lives with another woman who has had two children by him. Yet he unjustly holds legal authority over Terri's life and death.

Terri's parents have been combating Michael Schiavo's lethal ambition for years. But recently the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. So, Michael Schiavo pressed on. A Florida judge has now given the parents a few weeks to pursue other legal avenues to save their daughter's life, including tests to determine her mental state. Allegations that Michael Schiavo may have caused the injury to his wife are also being investigated. Terri Schiavo, who is not a criminal, has been given, in effect, a brief "stay of execution."

Whatever the legal outcome, the case of Terri Schiavo exposes a disorder at the heart of American law and morality. It is the moral malady of dehumanizing human beings by shearing them of their dignity and moral standing simply because they fail to live up to arbitrary standards of normality.

Michael Schiavo and his lawyers are claiming that Terri Schiavo's life is not worth living. Her "quality of life" is just too poor - at least by their standards. Therefore, she must die.

To anyone familiar with Nazi history, this should send a chill down the spine and a stab to the heart. When Hitler put into effect his vision of a Third Reich, he began to exterminate those deemed unworthy of his new civilization: first the handicapped and the gypsies, and then, of course, 6 million Jews, as well as thousands of Christians. These were lives "not worthy to be lived." They did not fit with the vision of a "master race."

One might argue that we are far from a Nazi mentality. We uphold our Constitution, hold free elections and strive to honor human rights. We have a president, not a Fuhrer. Indeed. But Hitler's regime was not built in a day. Civilizations invariably tend to drift from their founding ideals, unless chastened and held accountable to higher standards.

Remember Martin Luther King Jr.'s clarion cry, taken from the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal," including African-Americans.

For 30 years, American law has permitted the deaths of over a million unborn humans a year through legalized abortion. Some now defend infanticide, and the debate continues over the legality of "partial birth abortion," which is really a form of infanticide, since the baby is viable and partially delivered.

Today Terri Schiavo is on death row, along with many vulnerable people like her, awaiting the outcome.

The Jewish and Christian traditions, which, despite their detractors, in fact lie firmly at the base of Western civilization, do not praise civilizations according to their military power, their wealth or their prestige. Rather, they judge a society by their treatment of the hopeless, the helpless and the desolate - the people that the Hebrew Scriptures refer to generally as "widows and orphans."

Terri Schiavo has been effectively widowed by an uncaring, unjust and cruel husband. Will she be orphaned by an equally uncaring, unjust and cruel society as well?

© 2005 Douglas Groothuis. Originally appeared in The Rocky Mountain News, accessed at March 8, 2005.