As Terri Schiavo lay dying, her organs slowly mummifying from the effects of prolonged, court-ordered dehydration and starvation, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear an appeal from her parents that might have saved her life. Her parents argued that Schiavo’s right to due process under the law had been denied, a claim summarily rejected — without even the pretense of a full hearing — by a District Court and upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Less than one week later, however, the Supreme Court sat in rapt attention as attorneys argued a very different life and death case, this one involving a convicted rapist and murderer whose case found its way to the high court because he is a non-citizen, and who, it is alleged, had been denied full and adequate access to diplomats from his home country when he was criminally charged.
In both cases, lower courts had already ordered the termination of life — in the case of Terri Schiavo, by refusing her food and water on the basis of a Florida state court ruling; and in the case of Jose Ernesto Medellin, by the judgment of a Texas jury that he was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the rape and murder of two teenage girls in 1992.
So, why did the Court give so much more deference to Medellin’s claims than to Schiavo’s? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is because many people — including the judges who have considered her case — believe that Terry Schiavo’s disabilities render her no longer fully human. And in this judgment the medical establishment is fully complicit. The very term used to describe Schiavo’s condition — persistent vegetative state — conjures up images of a subhuman, sub-animal life form. As one health care professional wrote me after hearing me on television describe the pain Schiavo might suffer as she slowly dehydrated to death, “If you touch a venus fly trap plant (a stimuli) it will immediately close its petals (a reaction). That doesn’t mean it feels or cognizes [sic] that there is a fly that has landed.” Few public commentators have been as blunt, but the sentiment seeps through nonetheless in the words we choose to describe Schiavo’s state.
Although the media has tried endlessly to compare Schiavo’s predicament to that of cancer or Alzheimer’s patients whose families choose to withhold or withdraw life-support at the end of their lives, Schiavo was not dying — at least not until a judge ordered that she not be fed or given water. She required no machines to help her breathe, no kidney dialysis to remove toxins from her body, no pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat. She was even able to swallow on her own — she swallowed two liters of saliva every day, until severe hydration turned her mouth and tongue to dry leather — which raises the possibility that she may not even have required the feeding tube that the judge ordered removed. Until her court-ordered ordeal, she was a relatively healthy, if severely brain damaged woman whose longevity alone was testament to a will to live.
Those who want to end Terri Schiavo’s life have done everything in their power to dehumanize her. But Terri is not a “vegetable.” She is not “brain dead.” She is severely disabled. She cannot care for herself. She cannot “think” or communicate normally. But she is a person in the clear meaning of the Constitution, that is unless we have now collectively written such persons out of the Constitution.
We have been down this road before when we bought and sold Africans and their progeny as mere “property” and when our courts determined that the unborn are not persons unless their mothers choose to carry them to term. Now we seem on the verge of declaring — de facto — that the severely mentally deficient are not persons either. Who will be next — the gay man suffering from AIDS-related dementia, the Alzheimer’s patient who cannot feed herself, the infant with cerebral palsy or spina bifida or hydrocephalus? Will we suddenly find it convenient — even merciful — to let such people starve?
Rev. Jesse Jackson joined protesters outside Schiavo’s hospice on Tuesday, declaring, “This is one of the profound moral and ethical breaches of our time. . . we pray for a miracle.” It should not take a miracle to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that an innocent, brain-damaged woman deserved as much consideration as a convicted rapist and murderer. But then we live in dark times.