Eleven years ago today Terri Schiavo died after 13 days without food and water

By Dave Andrusko

Terri Schindler Schiavo, shown here as she responds to the tender touch of her mother, Mary Schindler.

Terri Schindler Schiavo, shown here as she responds to the tender touch of her mother, Mary Schindler.

Today marks the eleventh anniversary of the grotesque death by starvation and dehydration of Terri Schindler Schiavo. Her courageous brother wrote today “The inhumanity of what happened to her will never be forgotten.”

And, yet, I suspect, for many pro-lifers, especially those new to our Movement, Terri’s name is only a vague memory, if even that. Eleven years is a long time.

The irony is, as Bobby points out, that his sister’s ghastly death foreshadowed the head-first leap off a moral cliff we see in places like Belgium, the Netherlands, and (perhaps most foreboding) Canada. NRL News Today has written, or reposted, dozens and dozens of stories illustrating how the lives of the medically vulnerable have been recklessly and inhumanely cheapened.

If I may, I would like to use this somber occasion to recall for readers who may not know what happened in 2005 and in the process to update comments I’ve made about Terri, her brave parents, and her siblings. As you will see whenever I looked at Terri, I could never, ever get another death by starvation out of my heart and mind.

When your life revolves around trying to stem the anti-life tide that has swept away over 58 million unborn lives, you might think that the power of individuals cases—instances where the fate of one human life hangs in the balance—would be diminished.

You would be wrong. Let me set the context for how I came to see Terri’s plight.

I had been at National Right to Life only few months when the case of an Indiana baby—“Baby Doe”—became a topic of intense national debate. As the letter to the Movement that we reprint from President Reagan explained, when this little boy was born in 1982, he needed only routine surgery to unblock his esophagus which would allow him to eat. Except Baby Doe had Down syndrome.

“[A] doctor testified, and a judge concurred, that even with the physical problem corrected, Baby Doe would have a ‘non-existent’ possibility for a ‘minimally adequate life,’” President Reagan wrote back in 1984. “The judge let Baby Doe starve and die, and the Indiana Supreme Court sanctioned his decision.”

As I wrote at the time,

“Up until the time that tiny newborn baby died of starvation I took my pro-life commitment very seriously but impersonally. Baby Doe’s unnecessary death forever changed that for me, and I’m sure for many others as well.”

I did not learn of Baby Doe’s lethal plight until near the very end of his very brief life. But it was the exact opposite with Terri Schindler Schiavo’s ghastly ordeal.

When Terri died on March 31, 2005, having been denied nourishment for 13 agonizing day, the 41-year-old’s starvation death brought to an end—in one sense, at least—a tumultuous, eleven-year battle between the Schindler family and Terri’s estranged husband.

The Schindler family waged their courageous fight in multiple courts, in the Florida legislature, in the halls of Congress, until January 24, 2005, when the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Florida’s then Governor Jeb Bush to reinstate “Terri’s Law.” The law had been passed by the Florida legislature in an emergency session in October of 2003, signed into law by Gov. Bush, and protected Terri Schindler-Schiavo from a hideously painful death by starvation and dehydration.

It is enough to say that, as the saying goes, if truth is “the first casualty in war,” then long before the campaign to starve and dehydrate Terri to death succeeded, all the important details had been thoroughly distorted.

Virtually nothing—her true medical condition (Terri was falsely described as being a “persistent vegetative state” and/or “brain dead”), what she alleged would have “wanted” (to die this horrible death), her condition after 11 days (described by her estranged husband’s attorney as “peaceful,” “beautiful,” and/or “free of pain”)—was within hailing distance of the truth.

Terri’s memory lives on in the work of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network which Bobby describes as “an effort to help raise awareness, educate the public and most importantly, help families whose loved ones are in need of protection from this anti-life culture and a growing hostile health care system.”

Maybe the best way to end these remarks is to quote from pro-life President George W. Bush who worked hard on behalf of the Schindler family:

“The essence of civilization,” he said, “is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak.”

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